PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Bulls know how good Lauri Markkanen can be. But in his second season, fulfilling that potential has been a process filled with stops and starts.
Some nights—like the Finnish power forward’s 27-point performance in the Bulls’ Jan. 4 loss to the Indiana Pacers, or back-to-back 30-point games in December against Orlando and Cleveland—there are glimpses of the inside-outside threat whose combination of smarts and instincts around the basket and a deadly three-point stroke that promises to make him a building block for years to come.
Other nights, like the Bulls’ 124-112 Wednesday night loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, Markkanen is too deferential and reluctant to aggressively hunt his own looks.
In that game, Markkanen shot just 4-of-12 from the field. Since returning from the right elbow sprain that kept him out the first 13 games of the season, there have been plenty more nights like that. It’s something the Bulls know they need to change.
“He’s got the green light,” Bulls coach Jim Boylen said Wednesday night. “But he’s not that kind of guy. Maybe we’ve got to talk to him about changing his mentality a little bit.”
Part of Markkanen’s hesitancy surely comes from the injury, which affected his shooting elbow and kept him out of commission for most of training camp and the start of the regular season. He’s been playing catch-up since his return to the lineup on Dec. 1, just one game before the Bulls fired head coach Fred Hoiberg.
Between Markkanen’s injury and that greater organizational upheaval, carving out a consistent role has been a work in progress.
“I think it just takes time,” Markkanen said. “We’re working on it every day. There’s games where I get the ball a lot and there’s games where I don’t. So I just try to control what I can control. Play defense and do my best on that end of the court, and I know the offense will follow. It hasn’t been really consistent yet, but I’m sure that will come.”
Markkanen has developed a reputation among his teammates as being an unselfish team, team-first player. While that’s an admirable quality, on a team as lacking in shooters as these Bulls, Markkanen’s selflessness may be a bug rather than a feature. The team certainly wouldn’t mind if he was more selfish with the ball.
“I’d like him to be a little more greedy,” Boylen said. “I’d like him to be a little smarter with some of his possessions to get a quality shot. It’s part of the process. He missed games last year, he’s missed games this year. He’s probably just getting to a full first season right now. That’s not an excuse, but it’s the reality of it. I think he’s got to be timely in what he does, but also aggressive.”
In Markkanen, guard Zach LaVine and rookie center Wendell Carter, Jr., the Bulls have three foundational pieces as they move forward with their rebuild. And in a season that finds them with an abysmal 10-31 record at the halfway point, their sole focus should be on developing those three players’ chemistry and establishing their roles for the future. That could mean force-feeding Markkanen more looks to get him comfortable with the idea of looking for his own shot.
“It all starts from being aggressive,” Markkanen said. “Hopefully get to my spots. But I’m the type of person, I try to make the right basketball play. Whatever it is to help make the team better. That’s how I’ve been as long as I can remember. I’d rather take those good shots and make the team better that way.”
The Bulls’ five-game road trip, which began with the loss to Portland and continues Friday night against the Golden State Warriors, will provide plenty of opportunities for Boylen to further integrate Markkanen into the offense. Everyone acknowledges that he’s disappointed with the way things have unfolded thus far.
“I’m sure there’s some of that,” Boylen said. “We’re all human. But we’ve got to keep pushing forward. He’s got to go have his best performance of the year tomorrow, and then do the same thing the next game.”