An injured Wendell Carter Jr. watched from the bench last February as Lauri Markkanen authored his audition for multiple future All-Star appearances.
You remember. That’s the month Markkanen averaged 26 points and 12.2 rebounds on 48.6 percent shooting, including 34.8 percent from 3-point range.
That’s why, following another underwhelming performance from Markkanen, Carter offered an impassioned defense and support for the player the Bulls are still waiting on to take the next step.
“He just has to take his shots,” Carter said. “I tell him every time we’re in the game, ‘Take your shots. Don’t worry about it being in the offense. Don’t worry about making sure you do everything perfect. Take your shots. When you take your shots, miss or make, you get your swagger going.’
“We’re not necessarily saying we need him to put up a lot of points. But from my perspective, I just need him to play how he was playing last year. Get his shots. Shoot them. Miss or make. That gets him going, no matter what. And with him being such a great athlete, he’s going to make more than he’ll miss. I’m going to stay in his ear because I believe in him. I’ve seen what he’s capable of. I have high expectations.”
So, of course, does Markkanen and the Bulls. And yet, following Markkanen’s 3-for-10 shooting night against the Rockets that featured him missing all five of his 3-point attempts, the expectations aren’t getting met.
Markkanen never will rock the boat. But it’s clear he’s struggling in the Bulls’ equal opportunity system in which no true pecking order has been established. Zach LaVine taking seven more shots than Markkanen’s 10 is fine. Coby White taking six more and Tomas Satoransky taking one more may not be.
Some of this falls on Markkanen, of course, who has struggled to assert himself following his dominant 35-point, 17-rebound effort in the opener at Charlotte. Following Saturday’s loss, he’s now averaging 14.9 points on 38.5 percent shooting, including 27.9 percent from 3-point range.
“We do have a different offense, and we’re trying to figure out where the offense is coming from, where your spots are,” Markkanen said. “I’m not running that much in the post right now. I’m more on the perimeter as part of our offense. But we’re trying to figure it out and get to our spots.
“I’m confident in our offense. We’ve just got to get better every day.”
Markkanen did get to the line seven times, making all attempts. That’s a good sign.
“That means I’m trying to be aggressive and drive the ball,” he said. “That’s one thing I’m trying to focus on. I’m trying to get there even more.”
Since that dominant opening performance, Markkanen is only averaging 12.7 points on 35.1 percent shooting.
“You know, I think sometimes when it’s a tough shooting night and maybe the ball isn’t going down for you, maybe you gotta start putting that baby on the floor and creating and going by people,” coach Jim Boylen said. “Lauri isn’t the only reason we got our butt kicked.”
In theory, Markkanen is too good a shooter for such struggles to continue. But his lack of assertiveness has stood out. Whether that’s a reflection of him struggling to fit into Boylen’s system, his nature or some combination of those factors and possibly others, nobody knows.
“I just try to make the right basketball play,” Markkanen said. “I know I can be more aggressive at times. But I wouldn’t call it too unselfish.”
Carter said he’ll stay in Markkanen’s ear. That’s what a good teammate does.
It’s also what a teammate who knows someone can accomplish more does.
“I feel he’s trying to play the right way. You can’t be mad about that,” Carter said. “At the same time, he knows we need his scoring to be a good team. It’s just a conversation we had and I’m more than certain he’s going to turn things around.”
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