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.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.