#MuscleWatch has become a staple of NBA Media Days each year. Players from all 30 teams hitting the weight room all summer in preparation for their best year yet while feeling as strong and healthy as they’ve ever been. More times than not it’s fluff. Some of the world’s greatest athletes – many of whom are still maturing in their late teens – adding weight and muscle is expected. Even if that growth is real, 29 other teams’ players have accomplished the same.
That being said, it would have been impossible to see Lauri Markkanen on Monday at the Advocate Center and not believe he’s a changed player.
The second-year Finn spent his summer in his native Finland and also made joined a handful of NBA players in traveling to China for the Yao Ming Foundation Charity Game. When Markkanen wasn’t traveling he was spending hours in the weight room, and it’s easy to see that the results paid off.
A noticeably bigger, more defined Markkanen said he’s up to 240 pounds, 17 pounds heavier than his playing weight as a rookie. The transformation is a product of Markkanen having a more open summer after he spent the lead-up to his rookie season playing for Team Finland in EuroBasket 2017. There wasn’t as much time, Fred Hoiberg admitted, to work on Markkanen’s body as they worked him in slowly once he arrived in Chicago.
“I feel fresh,” Markkanen said. “We’ve been playing here (in Chicago) every day almost so I’ve been going up and down the court, but it’s different. I’ve been able to work on my body and actually be healthy. So I feel good.”
The next part of Markkanen’s transformation will be using it to his advantage on the floor. The 7-footer was impressive in Year 1, overshadowed some by the historic seasons posted by fellow rookies Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum. Markkanen’s overall numbers didn’t jump off the page – 15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.1 3-pointers, 43.4% from the field – but, taken in context, were solid. He began the year behind both Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, then found himself in the Opening Night starting lineup after the infamous fight in practice.
And where Markkanen was good and showed off his massive upside, his 20-year-old frame expectedly held him back in other areas.
Per NBA.com, Markkanen used just 11 percent of his offensive possessions in the post. And of those 111 possessions, he scored points on 45 of them. That 40.5% scoring frequency placed him in the 36th percentile league-wide. He shot 41.6 percent in post-up situations – nearly two percentage points lower than his overall number – a less-than-inspiring number considering the high percentage nature of those looks.
That should change with the added weight. Markkanen’s new frame, Hoiberg said, will also give the Bulls more options on offense.
“To be around our guys and to be in the weight room and to put on the size and strength that he did will help him overall all over the floor,” Hoiberg said. “Hopefully the ability to be able to punish a switch more consistently on the block. And his strength, as far as his ball handling and keeping guys on his hip (and) when he’s able to go by a bigger player.”
Where it will make an even more significant impact – as Hoiberg also alluded to – is on the defensive end. Teams went after Markkanen in the post, as a team-high 15 percent of his defensive possessions came in the post. And teams were smart to do it. Markkanen’s post-up defense ranked in the 28th percentile, allowing opponents to shoot 49 percent and score 101 points on 103 possessions, per NBA.com.
“I’m not going to get back down as easily,” Markkanen said.
His strength will add another component to what’s already becoming one of the most unique skill sets in the league. Zach LaVine is the $78 million man, Jabari Parker is essentially in a contract year and Bobby Portis could be in one if he and the Bulls don’t reach an extension agreement by Opening Night. Even Kris Dunn is entering a critical year for his growth (and future earnings).
But if the Bulls are going to take the next step of their rebuild and begin winning games, it’ll be Markkanen leading the charge. Though he admitted there may be nights “I might not be able to get touches as much” because of the new faces and spread out talent, the Bulls are hoping he’ll take on more on an Alpha role and become a leader. Markkanen himself admitted he’s always been a leader by example but needs to accomplish more vocally in his second season.
It’s a lot to ask for from a 21-year-old, but such is life in the NBA. His teammates see it in him, and they’re confident the 240-pound version will be the best one yet.
“He had such a good rookie year with the opportunity that he had,” LaVine said. “And the sky’s the limit for him. He’s one of those players that can do a lot of big things. Lauri’s off the charts.”