Lauri Markkanen has some exciting words if you’re a Cleveland Cavaliers fan.
“I don’t think I’ve hit close to my ceiling yet,” Markkanen said in a phone interview with NBC Sports Chicago shortly after the Bulls announced the sign-and-trade that netted them Derrick Jones Jr. and two drafts picks and sent Larry Nance Jr. to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Why Markkanen won’t reach that ceiling — whatever it is — with the Bulls could long be the subject of debate.
But on a Saturday afternoon in which Markkanen achieved the fresh start he publicly sought, not to mention financial security in the form of a four-year, $67 million contract, the mild-mannered Finn tilted toward positive reflection.
“The last couple years have been mentally pretty tough,” Markkanen said. “I’ve grown as a person because of that so I wouldn’t change it. I’ve learned a lot. But I just felt like I need to get back to the old me and how I know I can play the game. I think this is a good opportunity for me to do that.
“I’m happy. I’m really excited and looking forward. We kind of felt like I needed a fresh start. And I appreciate all the people who were involved to help facilitate it and make it happen.”
Markkanen joins a young Cavaliers core that includes Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, the third overall pick in this year’s draft.
Markkanen previously had stated that he views himself as a starter in this league. Depending on Mobley’s readiness to play, there’s no guarantee that happens.
But coming off a season in which he shot a career-high 40 percent from 3-point range, Markkanen knows he will have a prominent role. There are eight digits on his paychecks to prove the franchise’s commitment to him.
“I think I fit in well — young core, exciting point guards. I’m looking forward to playing with those big guys in the frontcourt. They’re all young, talented guys. I think we can grow together,” Markkanen said. “And I can’t wait to learn from a player like Kevin Love. Just learn aspects of the game from him and the mentality of the game, how he approaches it. I’m looking forward to that as well.”
Markkanen’s four years with the Bulls were filled with highs and lows. After arriving in the franchise-altering trade that sent Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves, Markkanen earned first-team All-Rookie honors by averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds.
The next season, few fans ever will forget his dominant February 2019 in which he averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists with eight double-doubles and a true shooting percentage of 62.
At the time, his career seemed to be on a similar ascension to that of fellow draft classmate Jayson Tatum, who now is a perennial All-Star. But injuries impacted Markkanen’s tenure, leading to starts and stops as he moved in and out of the lineup.
Over his four seasons with the Bulls, Markkanen averaged 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds while shooting 44 percent overall and 36.6 percent from 3-point range.
“I think obviously I’m most disappointed we didn’t make the postseason one time when I was there. We tried our best obviously. That’s what we’re paid to do. It didn’t work out,” Markkanen said. “I think I had good moments as a player, and I had some inconsistencies. But I’m looking ahead.”
The Bulls offered Markkanen a long-term extension before last season. He started his final season in Chicago red-hot before landing in the league’s health and safety protocols for contact tracing and later suffering another untimely — and freak — shoulder injury.
When the Bulls acquired Daniel Theis at the trade deadline along with Nikola Vučević, Markkanen’s role changed drastically. Head coach Billy Donovan started Markkanen alongside Vučević for one game before shifting to the more defensive-minded Theis, sending Markkanen into a regular reserve role for the first time during his Bulls’ tenure.
In a separate interview with NBC Sports Chicago at the conclusion of last season, Markkanen, known as a team player, stated that he looked forward to experiencing the business side of basketball. He then told a Finnish journalist that he wanted “a fresh start.”
At that point, it seemed only a matter of time before Markkanen had a new home. After no offer sheet came and salary cap space dried up around the league, Markkanen’s sign-and-trade market proved robust.
And now he has a new home. But he’ll always remember his first NBA home.
“I appreciate all the fans,” Markkanen said. “I got some criticism, which is sometimes good for you. Mostly, it’s been really positive. A lot of cars stopping and saying your name, cheering for you. It’s a lot of support as well. That’s what I’m going to remember, the positive part.
“So thank you. I’ve loved playing in Chicago. Obviously, things didn’t work out. But I got no hard feelings towards them. I’m really happy I got to play there. I’m also really excited for this new chapter.”