Bulls

Lauri Markkanen is focused on team, not individual, goals for Bulls

Lauri Markkanen is focused on team, not individual, goals for Bulls

You can’t put Lauri Markkanen in a box.

Just as you can’t pigeonhole one of the faces of the Bulls’ franchise offensively, you won’t get him to bite on any statistical goals for himself. As the outside world clamors for him and Zach LaVine to represent the Bulls at All-Star weekend in Chicago, Markkanen is focused on team goals.

“We haven’t made it to the playoffs and haven’t won many games since we’ve been here,” Markkanen said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago following Saturday’s practice, alluding to himself, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. “That really bothers us. So we want to win first.”

In fact, as Markkanen fielded questions about a preseason that featured him playing more as a spot-up shooter than the dynamic, double-double machine that defined his February 2019, he shifted the focus to defense and rebounding.

Ho and hum, indeed.

“You’re trying to get me to say 22 (points) and 12 (rebounds) and 3 assists,” Markkanen said, smiling. “I don’t have those kinds of goals. I want to get our wins from 22 to whatever. And I want to get our home wins from nine to whatever. I’m not putting a number on those either. But I think guys are doing a good job of making unselfish plays and making the extra pass. We’re coming together as a team.”

In fact, Markkanen said, at least for now, his only individual goals are to “stay healthy and be consistent.” He reiterated his stance from media day that his goal is to play all 82 games after averaging 60 games his first two seasons.

“I wanted to focus on defense more this preseason and I was a little disappointed in myself in that regard early in preseason. But I watched a lot of film and I think I had my learning moments and I think I got better as preseason moved on,” Markkanen said. “I’ve talked to Coach. We both expect rebounding from me. I think we’re going to be really good offensively. It’s at a high level now, and we’re deeper. If we rebound and can limit their possessions, we have a chance to be really good.”

Don’t mistake Markkanen’s aversion to setting statistical goals for submissiveness. Early in the interview, he called his preseason “maybe not as great as I wanted to play” and acknowledged he needs to increase his free-throw attempts by getting to the rim more.

Of Markkanen’s 42 shots, 24 came from beyond the arc and he attempted just seven free throws in close to 91 preseason minutes. That average of 1.8 free-throw attempts in his four preseason games pales in comparison to the 3.8 he averaged last season.

“I haven’t got to the rim as much. I’m conscious of that. Those are easy points for us,” Markkanen said. “(Driving) is still available to me. But defenses are loading up on me more and trying not to let me get downhill. And we’re not in the post as much (offensively) as we used to be. We’re shooting a lot of 3s.”

Markkanen smiled again as he said this, so it’s clear he likes the Bulls’ approach. He also remains confident his varied offensive game will be on display at some point.

“I don’t always talk to him about his offense to be honest with you,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I talk to him about defending and rebounding and handling the ball. I’ve shown him some of his decisions in transition where he’s handled the ball.

“I want him to compete at the defensive end, rebound, handle the ball and everything else to me takes care of itself. I know he’s going to make shots. Historically, he’s been better when the lights come on.”

Those lights get flipped on for real Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C. You can’t put Markkanen in a box. But he can put pressure on himself to help the Bulls make the playoffs.

“I have really high expectations of myself,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going. I want to win."

Daniel Gafford won't rest on laurels stemming from breakout performance

Daniel Gafford won't rest on laurels stemming from breakout performance

Daniel Gafford’s phone blew up Monday night with congratulatory well wishes following his 21-point performance in his first game of meaningful NBA minutes.

But the Bulls’ rookie acted more like somebody focused on his next opportunity than addicted to social media or electronic devices.

“I put it on ‘Do Not Disturb’ because I was trying to get sleep at the same time,” Gafford said following Tuesday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I was real sore from the game because I’ve been traveling a lot. I wanted to make sure I got the rest I needed for practice today.”

Gafford’s travel has been of the G League variety — bus rides, not five-star accommodations. More performances like his outing against the Bucks, though, and Gafford’s G League assignments may be over.

“What would help me is just try to remain consistent. I did that game, but I’ve got to be ready for the next,” Gafford said. “Enjoy it until midnight and then get ready for the next game the next day.”

The longer Gafford talked, the more his basketball IQ and willingness to learn and be coached came out.

On setting good screens: “Fighting through that fatigue, it was just a mental thing. Just making sure I got contact on the screens because the coaches were telling me they were trying to slip up under my screen because I wasn’t really setting them. So I had to make sure I hit guys when I was coming up to set screens to get bottom hip so I could make sure I was getting guys open because that can help them. But at the same time it can help me as well.

On feedback from coaches: “Mostly it was just on the pick-and-roll with opposing teams. Just making sure I be up at the level to where guards don’t get downhill as much. Just make sure I’m up to where I can help our guards get back from where they’re setting screens. And be better on defensive rebounding.”

On feedback from teammates: “They were just talking about my dunks, really, pretty much. They were patting me on the back, telling me, ‘Good job' and telling me whenever I get my chance again, come out and do the same thing.’”

Ah, yes, those dunks. What did the United Center rims do to Gafford anyway? The six rim-rattling slams he threw down on the night were enough for him to field a question as to his favorite.

“Oh, the one-hand lob that I caught,” Gafford said. “I didn’t think I was going to catch that. I thought it was going to get some of the rim and come out. But it went down for me and I appreciate it for that.”

Gafford said his wrist “feels good” after all that rim wrecking because he’s “used to it.”

And somewhere, fellow Arkansas product Bobby Portis is smiling. Not only was there a #freeDanielGafford movement on Twitter, a la #freeBobbyPortis from Portis’ rookie season with the Bulls, but Gafford also dropped a third-person reference. Portis used to do that, too.

“Go out there and play Daniel Gafford basketball,” Gafford said, when asked for his mindset.

Coach Jim Boylen said Gafford plays “with a pure heart.” With 20-20 machine Andre Drummond in town with the Pistons Wednesday, expect Gafford to get more rotational minutes.

And as for that “Do Not Disturb” sign on his phone, it worked.

“I slept good,” Gafford said.

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What is going on with Lauri Markkanen?

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USA Today

What is going on with Lauri Markkanen?

That is the question being asked around league circles as we approach the one month mark of the regular season. With the All-Star game being played in Chicago in February, the hope was Markkanen would take a big jump in his 3rd NBA season, and represent the home city in the showcase event.

Instead, the 22-year-old Finn is struggling through one of the worst shooting slumps of his young career through the first 14 games. Markkanen opened the season with a bang, scoring 35 points and pulling down 17 rebounds in the opener at Charlotte. But since that night, he’s only shot over 50% from the field in one other game and is sitting at 36.2% for the season, far off his career average of 42.6%. He’s been even worse from 3-point range shooting 26.8%, compared to his career norm of 35.2%.

And, it’s not like the Bulls haven’t been trying to get him going. In Monday’s loss to Milwaukee, Markkanen missed all four of his attempts from beyond the arc, most of them wide open looks.

Markkanen is making just over 25% of his wide open 3-point looks, which is classified by the NBA as a shot attempt with no defender within 6-feet. In case you were wondering, he made 43% of his wide open 3’s last season and 45% as a rookie.

Markkanen insists his confidence hasn’t wavered. “Shooters, all the players go through slumps” Markkanen told reporters in the post-game locker room Monday night. “Everybody’s broken through it at some point. When I’m staying confident, believing every shot’s going in, I know it’s going to turn around.”

But it’s not just the long range misses that have the Bulls concerned. Markkanen’s shooting woes seem to be affecting his all-around game, like this sequence against the Bucks late in the first half on Monday.

Markkanen had to deal with the length of Giannis Antetokounmpo on the first attempt, and in his anxiety to make good on the second try, he misses the dunk, something we’ve seen on a handful of occasions in recent games.

Even though Markkanen insists his shooting slump hasn’t affected his overall game, he’s also been less active on the defensive end, being overpowered inside and slow to help on drives to the basket.

It’s one thing for Giannis to score inside on Markkanen, it’s quite another to see Nets’ rookie Nicolas Claxton go strong to the basket for the and-one.

So, what can Markkanen do to shake the slump? Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen has often mentioned his third year forward seems to get energized by working hard on the defensive glass. Markkanen is more than capable of grabbing a rebound and taking it end to the end as he did on this play against the Nets last Saturday.

Markkanen has well above average ballhandling skills for a 7-footer, which makes him a dangerous weapon in transition. On this next play, he turns defense into offense at the expense of the reigning league MVP.

Watching plays like that, it’s pretty clear Markkanen’s issues aren’t physical. Boylen mentioned last week that Markkanen had been playing through a strained oblique, but Markkanen insisted it wasn’t an issue and felt fine physically.

Assuming Markkanen is healthy, his career numbers will tell you this shooting slump shouldn’t last much longer. Confidence is a funny thing for athletes, but the best thing Markkanen can do right now is stay aggressive on the offensive end and look for opportunities to get to the basket and draw fouls for some easy points.

Markkanen’s teammates have voiced their strong support for the young forward in recent days and you can count on them trying to set up him for more open looks.

After all, even though a remake of the Michael Jordan “Space Jam” movie is due out next year with LeBron James in the starring role, it’s not like the Monstars have stolen Markkanen’s ability to play basketball.

Markkanen summed up the state of his game very simply Monday night. “It’s not going to be like this forever. I don’t know what else to say.”

Everyone associated with the Bulls’ organization is counting on Markkanen to bust out of his slump with a series of big games very soon. 

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