When Lauri Markkanen got his right arm “stuck” in a rebounding scrum during Thursday’s practice, he didn’t think much of it. The second year power forward said his right elbow was sore but he managed to finish the practice.
It was only when he woke up in the middle of the night in pain that he believed the injury might have been more serious than initially expected. When he woke up Friday morning the elbow was sorer than when it first happened, leading Markkanen and the Bulls to have an MRI done.
It revealed a high-grade lateral sprain, one that will keep the 21-year-old out for six to eight weeks. Markkanen’s right arm will be immobilized for up to a month while allowing the elbow to heal. He’ll be able to do conditioning immediately.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing to be out,” Markkanen said before Saturday’s practice at the Adovcate Center. “It’s such a long offseason and I worked hard and was just ready to play basketball again. So it’s disappointing. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I’m going to be right back.”
It’s a significant blow for the player many expected to take the reins as the Bulls enter Year 2 of their rebuild. After earning All-Rookie First Team honors and becoming the fastest player in NBA history to reach 100 3-pointers, Markkanen gained 17 pounds in the offseason and said he felt “fresh” heading into his second season.
Fred Hoiberg expressed his frustration with the injury, noting that Markkanen was “really starting to understand the nuances of the offense.” Hoiberg also said Markkanen’s work ethic will serve him well during the recovery process.
“ You just look at his work ethic, that’s one of the greatest things about Lauri is that he’s going to keep himself as prepared as he can,” Hoiberg said. “He’s going to be able to keep himself in good condition and hopefully not skip a beat when he gets back.”
It’s a step back for Markkanen, and it’s also a significant change for Jabari Parker. The Bulls’ free agent acquisition, who was slated to start at small forward alongside Markkanen, will move to power forward while Markkanen is out. Bobby Portis will remain in his sixth man role.
It’s the Chicago native’s more natural position – and the position he played 86 percent of minutes in four seasons with the Bucks, per Basketball Reference – but also one he’ll need to become familiar with in a new setting.
“(Parker has) maybe had five reps at the ‘4’ the whole preseason. I’ve really been trying to get him to play one position and learn the ‘3’ because it’s so much different,” Hoiberg said. “You have to get out in front of the ball running the wing. Now he’s got to change his approach as the inbounder and he’ll be trailing the play more.”
Parker said he doesn’t expect much change moving from small to power forward.
“I feel like if you know basketball it’s pretty much the same position. So it’s not going to sway in (any) direction,” Parker said. “I don’t think it’ll change much at all.”
Regardless of how much acclimation Parker needs to the new position, the Bulls will keep the offense vanilla tomorrow against the New Orleans Pelicans. Justin Holiday will start at small forward in Parker’s spot and rookie Chandler Hutchison will have an opportunity for minutes, especially with Denzel Valentine sidelined with a sprained ankle. Hoiberg also said Antonio Blakeney will have a chance to earn playing time.
Therein lies the silver lining, if there can actually be one when the face of the franchise suffers a two-month injury. Ironically, Markkanen got his opportunity for extended minutes in the preseason after the Portis-Nikola Mirotic altercation.
Still, it’s the third significant preseason injury in the past four seasons. An errant elbow from Taj Gibson in 2016 cost Derrick Rose almost all of the preseason. Mirotic was out until December after the Portis punch and now the Bulls will be without Markkanen into the first month of the season.
“We’ve had our fair share,” VP John Paxson said. “Sometimes you wonder why. But this is sports. You just have to move on. The games are going to come. We’re going to have to play them. Hopefully the continuity we have right now through camp helps us. But it’s a blow to us, no question.”