Bulls

Why Lauri Markkanen's ceiling is the face of the Bulls' franchise

Why Lauri Markkanen's ceiling is the face of the Bulls' franchise

Something significant occurred on Dec. 7, 2018.

The Bulls were 8.5-point home underdogs to the red-hot Oklahoma City Thunder, who after an 0-4 start had won 16 of 19 games, including their last four by a combined 61 points. Chicago, who had elevated Jim Boylen to head coach four days earlier, was used to the underdog status – it had been favorites just once in its first 25 games – but hadn’t had much to show for it, entering that Friday night affair having lost 11 of its previous 12 games with an NBA-worst -12.1 net rating in that span.

It was, simply put, a matchup of the hottest team in the NBA vs. the coldest team in the NBA.

Then Lauri Markkanen arrived.

In just his third game back from a 10-week absence, Markkanen sliced up the NBA's best defense. He scored 24 points on 8 of 12 shooting, made four triples, and looked like the best player on a floor that included Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Zach LaVine. He battled Steven Adams inside. He made the Thunder pay on multiple pick-and-pop 3-pointers. He countered on those pick-and-pops by taking a switching George off the dribble for a thunderous dunk. He made a critical pass for an assist in the final minute to give the Bulls a lead. And with the game tied and 10 seconds remaining, he went 1-on-1 with George and finished with a floating layup over the eventual second runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.

Markkanen played like an All-Star. He played like a future star. He played exactly like what the front office, coaching staff and fan base believe he can be: the face of the Bulls franchise.

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Markkanen was essentially the fourth storyline during Draft Night 2017. The focus, of course, was the Bulls finally dealing three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler. But even the return the Bulls received was focused more heavily on acquiring Zach LaVine, a rising star with a torn ACL who needed a new contract in 12 months, and on Kris Dunn – a player the front office had always loved – potentially being the point guard of the future the franchise had been missing since trading Derrick Rose.

Then there was Markkanen, the 7-foot floor spacer who many – this author included – gave the “project” label because of his international status, age and position on the depth chart. Remember, the Bulls had Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, and had intentions of extending the latter.

One argument in practice, one punch and one suspension later, Markkanen was in the starting lineup when the Bulls opened their 2017-18 campaign in Toronto. The 20-year-old had 17 points and 8 rebounds in his debut, playing 33 minutes – the most by a Bulls rookie in his first game since Luol Deng in 2004 – and opening both local and national eyes.

Work in progress? Certainly. A project? Not in the least.

Markkanen’s rookie season was, as expected, rocky. The Bulls were tanking, LaVine was trying his best (and failing) to shake off rust post-ACL injury and there was an awkward logjam at power forward until Mirotic was traded in February.

Markkanen finished his rookie season averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds, joining Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor as the last players to reach those thresholds the last decade. He was the fastest player in NBA history to 100 3-pointers (41 games) and was everything the Bulls wanted off the court. There was optimism, and if you believe in year-to-year momentum, he finished his rookie campaign averaging 18.9 points on .500/.500/.742 shooting over his last seven contests.

His sophomore season began with the elbow sprain – suffered on Day 1 of training camp – and, in reality, should have put an asterisk on all his numbers going forward. Markkanen was excellent in Year 2, averaging 18.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.3 3-pointers – numbers reached only by Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love – in 52 games. But those numbers were accomplished after having his shooting arm immobilized for multiple weeks, returning to a 5-18 team and playing for a new head coach who didn’t exactly run a style suited to his game. Markkanen had every excuse to regress in Year 2, and instead put together a promising season bookended by two injuries.

He was lethal in February, averaging 26.2 points and 12.0 rebounds. He dropped a career-high 35 points on the Celtics’ No. 4 defense, made some defensive improvement late in the season and heeded his coach's advice to be aggressive on the glass and move the ball up the floor himself - he had 20 double-doubles as a sophomore, six more than his rookie season in 16 fewer games.

It’s why Year 3 holds such promise. He’s accomplished so much in two seasons despite having little to no stability around him and his health getting in his way. There’s a clean slate – and more hope for his team – this upcoming season and beyond. The bad years are seemingly out of the way, but even during them Markkanen was a bright spot. John Paxson said at the Bulls’ end-of-the-season press conference that he wasn’t “ruling out Zach LaVine or Lauri Markkanen being significant players in this league.”

Paxson is certainly doing all he can to make sure that happens.

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The Bulls were targeting a center in the 2018 NBA Draft. Despite rumors of them trying to move up to No. 4 to grab Jaren Jackson, they wound up standing pat at No. 7 and selecting Wendell Carter Jr. They got their man, but they also passed on the likes of Collin Sexton, Kevin Knox and Michael Porter, all of whom may have been better fits given the makeup of the roster at the time.

But the decision to take Carter made the front office’s intentions clear: They were building around Markkanen. Everything Carter did well – protect the rim, clean up around the basket, pass out of the pocket – were areas Markkanen struggled with during his rookie season. The two complemented each other perfectly, something Paxson alluded to on draft night.

A year later, the Bulls agreed to a deal with Thaddeus Young in the first minute of free agency – OK, they tampered like the other 29 NBA teams and agreed to a deal well before June 30. That’s the same Young whose experience and tutelage the last three seasons in Indiana helped turn Domantas Sabonis into a Sixth Man of the Year runner-up and Myles Turner into one of the best two-way bigs and Team USA’s starting center. Young was just as much a signing for Markkanen (and Carter) as he was for Boylen and on-court production.

The Bulls also inked a deal with Tomas Satoransky, a low-usage, pass-happy point guard who will be able to find Markkanen more often than Dunn did each of the last two seasons. Boylen hired two assistants this offseason – a big man coach and another whose Nets teams ranked in the top-5 in 3-point shooting each of the last three seasons. Coincidence? Probably, but both just so happen to benefit Markkanen.

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Markkanen isn’t a perfect prospect. There’s work to do.

Remember the 24-point breakout against OKC? Markkanen followed it with an 8-point game in the infamous Celtics loss. Then he went 5 of 16 against the Kings two nights later. Three nights after that, in Mexico City, Markkanen scored seven points in 28 minutes against the Magic.

Markkanen scored 30 or more eight times last season. He scored 10 or fewer eight times, too. He had five games in which he hit five 3-pointers. He also had six games in which he missed every triple he took.

For 10 games in February he was the best non-Greek basketball player in the world. In March, he shot worse from the field and 3-point line than Kris Dunn.

He shot below 50 percent from 2-point range – only four other 7-footers who appeared in 41+ games did that, compared to 29 7-footers who shot better than 50% inside the arc – and disappeared at times. He doesn’t always have the killer instinct required to be a No. 1 option on a team hoping to play late into May.

That consistency will be the key for Markkanen. It’s cliché but it’s true. As the Bulls continue to put the right pieces around him to succeed, Markkanen will need to use them to his advantage while advancing his own game on a nightly basis. There’s optimism he’s willing to do just that (which is why they made the moves in the first place) and accomplish everything in front of him. Health will be important, as it is for every star, but especially for someone who has already missed 44 games in two seasons.

If it all comes together for Markkanen – and the Bulls are banking plenty on that happening – he’ll be the one to take the Bulls into the next chapter of their franchise. He’s that unique and talented. On the one hand, he won't turn 23 until next offseason. On the other hand, the NBA isn't waiting around for the Bulls to grow up. They're in Year 3 of their rebuild and, injury excuses or not, have a combined 49 wins (and zero top-five picks) in two seasons to show for it.

Someone will need to step up and make a leap to stardom to bring the Bulls back to relevance. LaVine feels just as much on the cusp as Markkanen, and the Bulls would have no issue with the duo becoming 1A and 1B in the pecking order. But Markkanen, at just 22 years old, is putting together something special. His potential feels untapped despite all he's accomplished in two turbulent seasons.

As Boylen put it the night of “that big Finnish kid’s” game-winner against the Thunder: “He’s a hell of a guy to have on our side.”

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls lose to Warriors for 2nd time in 10 days

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USA TODAY

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls lose to Warriors for 2nd time in 10 days

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson, and John Sabine react to the Bulls 100-98 loss to the Warriors

0:45 - Reaction to loss and Bulls losing to Warriors again

2:30 - On 4th quarter struggles

3:30 - On Zach LaVine’s game-winning shot attempt

5:20 - Viewer comments on Coby White starting

9:20 - Viewer comment on Denzel Valentine leads to Matt rant

10:20 - Viewer comment on Wendell Carter

12:10 - Viewer comment on Sato needing to be more aggressive

13:30 - Viewer comment on Luke Kornet

16:35 - Viewer comment on Denzel Valentine talking trash to Warriors

18:00 - On LaVine not being the issue

19:00 - On Otto Porter’s injury and being out indefinitely

22:10 - Viewer comment on Bulls being contenders

23:50 - Viewer comment asking why Matt is always angry

24:50 - Viewer asking Sabine how he feels about the Bears beating the Cowboys

26:20 - Which team is more likely to make playoffs, Bears or Bulls?

 Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Bulls Outsiders

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Lauri Markkanen inspires, then fades in emblematic loss to Warriors

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USA Today

Lauri Markkanen inspires, then fades in emblematic loss to Warriors

When Lauri Markkanen is on, it's inspired. And he was 'on' in the first half of the Bulls' eventual 100-98 loss to the league-worst (entering the night) 4-19 Warriors. 

In fact, there were stretches when it appeared he just might save the Bulls from their second (second!) loss of the season to Golden State.

See: the opening five minutes of the second quarter. The Warriors, trailing 28-23 at the end of the first period, were on a 16-5 run. You could call it a spurt, but it felt more like an avalanche. The Bulls' bench had gone cold, Ky Bowman and Omari Spellman were raining hellfire and the United Center was despondent.

Then, Markkanen awoke. It all started on a pick-and-pop action between Markkanen and Denzel Valentine. With the Warriors flat-footed and scrambling to rotate, Markkanen reeled in a bounce-pass from Valentine at the top of the key and rifled a side-armed bullet to Daniel Gafford, awaiting free and clear in the paint. This is a delightful play, and a rare one for Markkanen this season:

Two straight 3-pointers (one on another pick-and-pop possession in concert with Zach LaVine) followed that, then a cutting dunk to knot the game 41-41. Markkanen finished the half leading the game in points (17), field goals made and attempted (shooting 7-for-11) and 3-pointers, on which he was 3-for-6. The Bulls were ahead 51-50. Too close for comfort, yes, (especially for this team) but in the moment, that Markkanen sequence felt like a true leadership moment. He was carrying the team.

Zach LaVine, after all, hadn't scored until the under two minutes until the half.

"I was getting good looks, my teammates were finding me, and I was getting to the rim," Markkanen said. "No matter how they were guarding me, we found something that worked for us."

Markkanen then proceeded to not score for over 25 minutes of game action, totaling three points in the second half on 1-for-6 shooting. After the game, Jim Boylen was unsure of what exactly changed for Markkanen of the second, but the taste in his mouth was evidently sour.

"I don't know. I mean, sometimes people adjust? They adjust to a guy who's got it going and they change. Sometimes the ball doesn't go in," Boylen said. "That's the game."

Boylen added that he liked the look Markkanen got on a 3-pointer late in the fourth that, at the time, tied the game 97-97. It was the only shot Markkanen made after the 4:48 mark of the second quarter.

"The team goes on spurts," Markkanen offered as explanation. "We go on little runs and they go on runs. That's how the game is, and I feel like we did a good job feeding the hot guy. When Zach got going in the second half, we did the same thing, so... I think that's part of it."

LaVine scored 21 of his 22 points in the game over a seven-minute stretch between the end of the second quarter and beginning of the third. For the third time this season (and second time in three games), LaVine and Markkanen each tallied 20 points. It rang hollow.

So did the team's end-of-fourth-quarter execution, an area they excelled in over the two-game win streak they rode into this one. LaVine, again, controlled the majority of the team's crunch-time possessions, but this time, the team fell short — mustering only 15 points in the final period.

"We could've executed, not turned the ball over," Markkanen said. "Simple plays. Obviously everybody's going to look at the last play, but it's not about that. We had some good looks before that that we gotta make the plays that we need to finish the game off."

Markkanen committed two turnovers and bricked a forced, late-shot clock jumper in the final two minutes. "I could have done a better job making the plays I needed," he conceded.

The Bulls go as LaVine and Markkanen do, and their stilted play tonight reflected the team's oft-polarizing offense. After two games of fresher air, Markkanen — 'back' for a half, a leader on the floor — ultimately took one step back.

"You know, that's part of the learning," Boylen said. "People adjust in the second half to what you did in the first, and you gotta adjust again."

What that adjustment will be remains to be seen.