Though Lauri Markkanen can be soft spoken and occasionally bland in interviews, he’s also typically humorous and playful.
But even the roughly 800 miles of separation between Oklahoma City and Chicago, and the added layer of Zoom interaction, couldn’t hide Markkanen’s fatigue Wednesday in answering questions about two subjects: his shooting struggles and his looming contract extension deadline.
“The contract thing, I’m not worried about it. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. I can’t really control that,” Markkanen said back at the team hotel following a post-practice lifting session. “I don’t know where we’re at exactly. There have been negotiations but not much to tell you [reporters] right now. So we’ll see.
“It’s not putting any extra pressure on me right now. I feel confident going game by game.”
The Bulls have until Monday to negotiate an extension of Markkanen’s rookie deal. If no common ground is found, he’d be a restricted free agent with a cap hold of $20.2 million next summer, and the Bulls would own the right to match any offer he receives.
The negotiations began as negotiations typically do -- with a large gap between the two parties, according to someone familiar with the discussions. Deadlines often can spur action. Given Markkanen’s preseason woes, management must take a big-picture approach to the talks.
Both Markkanen and Artūras Karnišovas have said they want to finalize a deal by the deadline.
“We all believe that Lauri is an important part to our team moving forward,” coach Billy Donovan said. “We feel like he’s only going to continue to get better and improve.”
He certainly needs to shoot better.
After a strong start in his first game following the Bulls’ nine-month layoff, Markkanen has managed just 5-for-25 shooting from the field, including 2-for-14 from 3-point range. To his credit, he has pulled down 16 rebounds. Donovan has talked about players needing to impact the game when shots aren’t falling.
But the Bulls aren’t discussing a multi-year commitment to one of the centerpiece acquisitions from the Jimmy Butler trade for Markkanen to be a rebounder. He needs to become a more consistent offensive threat.
“I’m going to be confident shooting my shots,” Markkanen said. “Mentally, I’ll put the work in.”
Donovan said he called the first play of Wednesday’s game specifically for Markkanen following Markkanen’s 1-for-10 struggle the previous game. On a nice action in which Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. set screens for Coby White, the point guard then found a wide-open Markkanen after Carter re-screened for him.
Alas, Markkanen’s 3-point attempt missed.
“You have to have a mentality that you have to forget what happened on the previous possession or the previous day. And you have to have an internal belief that you’re working and building confidence through your habits,” Donovan said. “And I just wanted to go right back to him on the first possession just because of the way he shot the ball those first two games. He has to have that mentality himself. And I thought he did.
“I was really encouraged to see him after missing quite a few shots in a row being able to bounce back. Now the next step for him is going to end up being if he misses one or two, being able to make the third one. There’s a mindset to that. But I did want to encourage him to continue to be aggressive because he’s taking the right shots. I feel good about the shots. He’s not forcing it. There are some he could probably shot fake a little bit, but for the most part he’s taking pretty good looks.
“He is 7-feet. He can shoot over a lot of people, so he’s just to keep internally having that confidence that the next one is going to go down.”
Indeed, Donovan cited that passing up open shots only mucks up the Bulls’ offense. And that defenses continue to have to pay attention to Markkanen, which keeps the floor spaced.
“He’s getting it in a variety of ways. He’s getting pick-and-pop 3s. He’s getting out in transition. He’s getting some drives to the basket. He had a pick-and-roll play with Wendell where he drove it left and got a layup,” Donovan said. “That’s probably an area he needs to continually improve upon. I think for Lauri maybe some of the injuries have dictated some of his shooting percentages over his career. I do think he’s a much, much better shooter than he has shown for us these first three preseason games. In fairness to him and the rest of the guys, they’ve had three competitive games in a long period of time. So I think once he gets his legs under him, I feel pretty good about him.”
From Markkanen’s draft class, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox all have agreed to maximum contract extensions. Markkanen, who at one point was talked about in the same category as Tatum, is coming off a disappointing season.
He’s focused on what he can control.
“It’s both mental and physical,” he said of how he addresses his slump. “You kind of both watch the film and see what you can do differently and if there is something to fix you kind of try to change that. More often than not just getting more shots up and getting the confidence right and just keep shooting.
“I’ve been putting the work in, doing extra work following the game and I know that’s going to change. The shot looks solid in the film I’ve been watching. There are a couple of tricks you can get your balance right and stuff. Mostly it’s been good, so I’m confident.”