Bulls

NBA Buzz: Lauri Markkanen looks ready to join the ranks of the NBA's elite

lauri-lavine.jpg
USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Lauri Markkanen looks ready to join the ranks of the NBA's elite

As frustrating as this season has been for Bulls' fans, at least we're finally seeing signs of a foundation being built for future playoff teams.

The acquisition of Otto Porter Jr. gives the Bulls four solid starters in place for at least the next couple of seasons, with the chance to add another top player in the draft and one or two veteran back-ups in free agency. The most important decision of the off-season will come at the point guard position, where Kris Dunn enters the final year of his rookie deal likely facing competition for his starting spot.

As we all know, building winning teams in the NBA is about finding stars. It's almost impossible to compete for championships without 2 or 3 elite players in your lineup. When the Bulls traded a top 15 player away in Jimmy Butler back in June of 2017, they were hoping at least one of the players they got back would turn out to be a star, and it looks like 2nd year forward Lauri Markkanen is ready to make that jump.

Since the calendar flipped to February, Markkanen has been playing more assertively on the offensive end than we've ever seen before. He's averaging 26.4 points and 12.4 rebounds with 18.3 field goal attempts per game. Those numbers would easily earn him a spot on the All-Star team for next year's game in Chicago.

But it's not just the numbers alone that are impressive about Markkanen.

Ever since a visit from his long-time coach in Finland during the Bulls' extended western road trip, Markkanen has taken the court with a completely different mentality. Instead of drifting out to the 3-point line and waiting for the ball to come to him, the 7-foot power forward has put some power in his game, repeatedly attacking the rim to score over smaller defenders and more than double his trips to the free throw line.

Just how good can Markkanen be? With his size, agility and shooting range, there's no reason why Markkanen can't average 20 points and 10 rebounds over an entire season. Plus, with his newfound aggressive scoring mentality, that number could edge up to the 23-to-25 point range.

Markkanen has been compared frequently to the best international player the NBA has ever seen, Dirk Nowitzki. While it's unfair to expect anyone to replicate the career Nowitzki has enjoyed, Markkanen's skill-set at 21 years old compares favorably to a young Dirk, and there's no reason why Bulls' fans shouldn't expect to see his game expand considerably in seasons to come.

Could Markkanen become a top 10 player? That projection is still a ways off with talented forwards like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George still going strong, along with young big men Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns. Still, there's no reason to believe Markkanen can't be a top 20 talent over the next decade.

Just as encouraging for the Bulls' future is the growing chemistry between Markkanen and Zach LaVine. Those two players posted career high scoring totals in an unlikely win over Boston last weekend, LaVine going for 42 points with Markkanen adding 35 points and 15 rebounds. The last time a Bulls' duo scored 35 or more in the same game was in 1996, when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen lit up the Phoenix Suns.

No one is predicting LaVine and Markkanen will become the next Jordan and Pippen, but having a dynamic scoring duo emerge is a template for future success. LaVine told reporters after beating the Celtics that fans should expect more games like that from the two young stars. And, that's an exciting prospect for a team and a fan base that has endured so much losing over the last two seasons.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

--------------------------------------------------

Problems continue in Lakerland, where the failed power play to land Anthony Davis before the trade deadline seems to have created a rift between LeBron and some of the young players who were rumored to be heading to New Orleans in the deal. James has been in damage-control mode ever since, and told reporters he was going to activate the "playoff-mode" LeBron earlier than usual to make sure the Lakers would qualify for the playoffs.

L.A. came out of the All-Star break by rallying from a 17-point deficit to beat the Rockets, but followed that up with inexplicable losses to the Pelicans and Grizzlies. Even worse, James was caught on camera loafing on the defensive end during the loss to Memphis, then questioned the commitment of his younger teammates in the locker room after the game.

Just last week in this column, I wrote it's never a good idea to bet against James carrying a team beyond expectations, but the Lakers are starting to look like a group that can't wait for the season to end. L.A. faces one of the league's toughest schedules over the final six weeks, so unless James finds the fountain of youth and also repairs the relationship with his younger teammates, he could wind up missing the playoffs for the first time since his 2nd season in the league with Cleveland.

-------------

The NBA's other signature franchise is also dealing with chemistry issues right now. The Celtics looked flat in a 10-point loss to the Bulls at the United Center last weekend, and once again Kyrie Irving made matters worse with some odd comments to reporters afterwards.

Irving said he still thinks the other Eastern conference contenders won't be able to beat Boston in a 7 game playoff series, and when pressed for a reason, he blurted out "because I'm here."

Sure, Irving is an elite talent, one of the best point guards in the NBA. But the Celtics made it to Game 7 of the conference finals last season without Irving or injured teammate Gordon Hayward, and some of the younger guys who played major roles in that postseason run are chafing at being relegated to diminished roles.

Brad Stevens is considered one of the NBA's brightest coaches, but he still hasn't found the best rotation to take advantage of all the talent on his roster. The Celtics still could figure it out when the playoffs start in April, but finishing 4th or 5th in the East will mean a 2nd round series against the Bucks or Raptors, and right now Boston looks like a decided underdog against either one of those teams.

------------------

The Bulls will play a home-and-home series against the Atlanta Hawks at the end of the week, and in case you haven't noticed, Trae Young is silencing all the critics who were blasting him after a slow start to his rookie season.

Young is averaging 22.2 points and 9.2 assists during the month of February, continuing a steady rise in production during his 1st year as a pro. So far, his playmaking has been even more impressive than his long range shooting, featuring an innate ability to find teammates with pinpoint, no-look passes.

Would the Hawks like a re-do on the draft night trade that sent Luka Doncic to Dallas for Young and 1st round pick in the 2019 draft? Probably, considering how good Doncic is playing as a rookie.

But that shouldn't be read as an indictment on Young, who is proving he can be an impact player at the pro level, despite his lack of size. Plus, the trade with the Mavericks will most likely give the rebuilding Hawks two top 10 picks in the upcoming draft.

The Bulls brought Young in for a workout before the 2018 draft, and you can bet they would love to have the former Oklahoma All-American running their offense now, especially since he would add the long-range shooting ability they're currently lacking at that position.

Looking at the long-term roster construction, the Bulls are thrilled to have a young rim protector with intriguing offensive potential like Wendell Carter Jr. in place, but after watching Doncic and Young both go off the board in the top 5 picks last summer, they've been scouting the point guard pool led by Ja Morant and Darius Garland very thoroughly during the current college season.

Don’t forget, the Bulls also have an early 2nd round pick acquired in the Justin Holiday trade with Memphis, which could bring other point guard options into play like Duke’s Tre Jones, North Carolina’s Coby White, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, Marquette’s Markus Howard, Virginia’s Ty Jerome and Boston College’s Ky Bowman.

It’s possible the Bulls will draft a point guard and also bring in a veteran to compete with Dunn when training camp opens in late September.

How Drew Gooden thinks LeBron James can surpass Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant

How Drew Gooden thinks LeBron James can surpass Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant

Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? Who is truly the greatest of the bunch?

For Bulls supporters — and, it seems, most basketball fans in the wake of “The Last Dance” — the answer is simple. Jordan, of the five MVPs, six rings (and Finals MVPs), nine scoring titles and a litany of additional accolades is without comparison.

But appearing on Lunch Talk Live with Mike Tirico, Drew Gooden, now an NBC Sports Washington analyst and a teammate of James with the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2004-2008, brought up an interesting swing variable in the debate: Phil Jackson.

“There’s one variable that we never talk about when this discussion comes up between Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and it’s one guy that I think is the variable in this formula and it’s Phil Jackson,” Gooden said. “I mean, if you take Phil Jackson out of this equation, how many championships does Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant have?

“LeBron James is in a unique situation outside of not having a Phil Jackson, being able to have to go like a vagabond and go figure it out himself with multiple coaches, multiple organizations, multiple systems. With that being said, I think his book is a lot different than Michael Jordan’s and Kobe Bryant’s, because I feel like they had the structure with Phil Jackson most of their career and were successful with Phil Jackson.”

Indeed, James’ three titles are divided between two franchises, two with the Miami Heat, one with the Cavaliers. And he's positioned for another deep run with the top-seeded Lakers this year. Jordan and Bryant’s title-rearing years came under one coach’s tutelage, James’ two (that he actually won titles with) and counting, and he's cycled through countless rosters and team infrastructures. Some will point to that tumult being his own doing, but the point stands.

Gooden wasn’t ready to anoint James ahead of Jordan and Bryant. But he did say this season could be a pivot point.

I think this will be the tale of the tape of, OK, I’ve not only done that two times, but I’m gonna do it a third time in Los Angeles,” Gooden said. “Doesn’t matter who the coach is, doesn’t matter who my teammates are, I’m gonna provide another championship for the city of Los Angeles. 

“Now if he does that now, you’re starting to see, alright, where does he separate himself from Michael Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant.”

It won’t look conventional, but with the NBA announcing a 22-team return plan for the late summer, it seems James will get a chance.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Art19

Thad Young on the challenges of being a father in a racially unjust world

Thad Young on the challenges of being a father in a racially unjust world

Before getting to Jim Boylen’s future, the anticlimactic end to the Bulls’ campaign and the NBA’s unprecedented 22-team play-in format to finish its 2019-20 season, Thad Young had to address the full context at hand for his conference call with reporters.

For Friday marked the 11th day since George Floyd, a black man, died after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine straight minutes. The killing has sparked mass unrest, protests and fervent discourse around racial injustice and police brutality across the globe. The world also continues to grapple with the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered the NBA on March 11, and the rest of the United States (where the virus has killed over 100,000 and counting) soon after.

“I know we’re stuck in unprecedented times where we’re in the house during COVID and then the thing that happened with George Floyd and social injustice,” Young said before fielding questions on the call. “I just want to make sure to let everybody know that I hope everybody is safe and healthy with our families, and make sure we’re holding each and every one of us close and try to get through these tough times…”

Young, 31, is currently bunkered down in his family’s new home in Texas with his wife, Shekinah, and two sons. Parsing through the realities of a racially unjust world with his sons, to hear Young tell is, has been a balancing act.

“When they come up with a question, it’s very hard to answer that question because I don’t want them to have to grow up and fear for their lives or have to grow up and understand that they can’t do the same things that other people are doing,” Young said. “That’s one of the toughest things. You want to give your kid the world. You want to get them to understand that, ‘Hey, you can do whatever you want to do.’ In these times, it’s just not the same. You can’t do everything that somebody else is doing. 

“If I’m going to be specific about it, the black kid can’t do everything that a white kid is doing. Those are things that are very, very tough to talk about. But it’s a harsh reality and we have to talk about them. My kids are still young, six and nine. They understand certain things that are going on, but not entirely everything. 

“For me as a father, that’s probably one of the toughest conversations to ever have with your kids. They all have questions because there’s so much stuff on social media and so much stuff on YouTube, which is what all the kids are watching now. When they see a video pop up with different things that happened… My youngest son, he asked the other day, ‘Why did they kill that man, Daddy?’ It’s hard for me to answer that question because you don’t want to push him into the harsh reality of what it is. But you have to answer those tough questions and you have to have those tough conversations with your kids. It’s definitely hard. What happened is definitely saddening for me but it also scares me to death because I have two young boys.”

Sadder still because the direct onus of those difficult conversations falls on black families far more than their white counterparts. It’s a testament to how ingrained racial biases (at best) and racist practices (at worst) still are, even today.

The hope of Young, Zach LaVine, who spoke on an earlier call, and countless others calling and fighting for change, is that a new dawn is on the horizon. Whether substantive change comes to fruition remains to be seen, but Young emphasized that resolution will come through unity.

“It’s so early right now just to see if there’s going to be change. One of the things that I do see is we have some unity coming,” Young said. “We have some people who are getting together. We have these protests. People are coming out and letting their voices be heard. You have a lot of celebrities and very, very influential people who are following suit. The good thing is we have a lot of people who are speaking up for change and speaking up for freedom and peace. 

“We’re bringing more and more people together. One of the biggest things is to continue to do that. Continue to let our voices be heard. Stay together. Stay unified. And also make sure we do what’s right and steer everybody away from doing what’s wrong.”

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Art19