Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen trying to become dynamic duo for Bulls

USA Today

Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen trying to become dynamic duo for Bulls

Jim Boylen once worked for the Rockets. Now, the Bulls are playing like them.

OK, so that’s a slight exaggeration, obviously. For starters, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are proven All-Stars, while Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are trying to get there. The Rockets also clearly have an established offensive pecking order, while the Bulls’ equal opportunity system has produced some moments of drifting for LaVine and Markkanen.

And no team takes more 3-pointers or field goals earlier in the shot clock than the Rockets, who also only trail the Timberwolves in pace.

But after detailing his desire to break the Bulls’ offense down before building it back up, Boylen now has the personnel for his plan. The Bulls rank 15th in pace, eighth in fast-break points and, if shooters start matching their career numbers, could become a consistent 3-point threat.

As of Friday morning, the Bulls trailed only the Rockets and Bucks in 3-point attempts and led the league in attempts less than 5 feet. Somewhere, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey nods approvingly.

“We’re trying to do that style,” LaVine said. “I feel like I’ve done a good job of taking less (mid-range shots). I still shoot the ones that are open. But it’s the style of play we want, and we’re going to work it.”

The Bulls rank tied for 22nd in 3-point percentage at 33.3 percent, just ahead of the Rockets’ 33 percent. At 6.3 attempts, LaVine is shooting the second-most of his career per game and connecting on 38.6 percent, above his career mark of 37.4 percent.

Markkanen entered this season as a career 36.2 percent 3-point shooter and has connected at just 30.4 percent this season. Otto Porter Jr., who is sidelined indefinitely with a sprained left foot, entered the season as a career 40.5 percent 3-point shooter and has recently overcome a slow start to pull to 40 percent.

“We have really good 3-point shooters on the team, LaVine said. “If you start slow eventually the numbers will average out, get you where you’re supposed to be at. I feel like I’m shooting the ball pretty well. Otto, before he hurt himself, got really hot in that Atlanta game. His shot started to come on. Lauri made a couple threes, so it’s picking up.’’

What also needs to pick up is LaVine and Markkanen forming a consistent 1-2 punch. The Rockets pretty much know what they’re going to get from Harden and Westbrook every night. Too often it seems if LaVine dominates, Markkanen doesn’t. And vice versa.

In theory, the duo should work perfectly — two players with shooting range and a broad offensive package. Drive and kick. Pick and roll. Pick and pop. You name it, LaVine and Markkanen should have the offensive chops to achieve it.

“It seems like a match made in heaven. We just got to be able to be consistent together and both be dominant on the court at the same time,” LaVine said. “We know we can be a dynamic duo, with our shooting, our athletic ability to get to the hoop. We just have to put it into the game. We’ve seen it at points in the game sometimes---last year, this year---but we’ve just got to do it consistently.”

And in the fourth quarter. Every opponent knows the ball will be in the hands of Harden and Westbrook the most come crunch time. Harden’s fourth-quarter usage rate sits at 41.7 and Westbrook’s 29.4. LaVine is at 30.5, while Markkanen is at 23.1.

LaVine has been efficient in the fourth. His 53 points in the final period ranks 14th in the NBA. Harden’s 69 fourth-quarter points ranks fourth, while Westbrook’s 59 points sits 10th.

“I'm not trying to force too many things. Obviously when I feel like I need to try to take over, be aggressive, I do that and I feel like that's the right thing,” LaVine said. “I know I'm still pretty high up in fourth-quarter scoring. I feel like I've been pretty efficient. I haven't been as efficient as I was last year, but it's early on in the season. If I can get my field-goal percentage up about six percentage points, I'll be where I was last year. Just continue to work on little things.”

Indeed, part of the responsibility of establishing an offensive pecking order falls on the player. Markkanen in particular is more effective late when he runs the floor hard or rebounds early. Players have to earn teammates’ trust and aggressively pursue shots.

For now, Boylen wants LaVine to focus on being a more complete player.

“I thought Zach was tremendous the other night,” Boylen said of LaVine’s performance in Atlanta. “He let it come to him. He had (four) assists, five deflections and two steals. And we won. I’ve been asking him to be a complete player. And, to me, he’s working towards that. And he’s working hard.”

LaVine only scored 10 points on 10 shots that game but engaged defensively and didn’t force matters. That the game was a blowout and his offensive aggressiveness wasn’t needed in the fourth quarter helped.

“As long as we get the win, obviously, I'm cool with it,” LaVine said of 10 shots. “I'm going to continue the way I'm supposed to. I feel like I played the right way. I got my teammates involved. I played really good defense. I know we'll need my scoring against Houston, though, so I'll be aggressive.”

That’s the right approach as well.

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Wendell Carter Jr. is showing significant signs of growth in his second season, both on and off the court

Wendell Carter Jr. is showing significant signs of growth in his second season, both on and off the court

When the Bulls selected Wendell Carter Jr. with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft, John Paxson and Gar Forman talked about his rare intelligence, mental toughness and maturity for a 19-year-old prospect.

We saw signs of Carter Jr.’s leadership ability during his 44-game rookie campaign. He took the losses as hard as anyone in the locker room and spoke candidly about the need to change the mindset and focus of everyone on the roster. Carter’s first season ended early because of a broken thumb, but his emergence as a strong voice among the players was only beginning.

With the Bulls getting off to an unexpected slow start to the 2019 season, the now 20-year-old Carter has been a prominent voice in the locker room, saying the players need to feel the pain of the constant losing and do everything possible to turn things around.

Carter has certainly done his part, taking a significant step forward through the first 11 games of his second season. The former Duke star is averaging 13.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and has already notched seven double-doubles — the first Bulls center to accomplish that since Joakim Noah in the 2010-11 season.

After experiencing the physicality of NBA post play as a rookie, Carter put in extra work in the weight room this past summer, and showed up for training camp at a solid 265 pounds. He’s used that extra strength effectively on both ends, banging with the league’s biggest centers under the basket, while also maintaining his ability to switch onto smaller players in pick-and-roll coverage.

Carter also got advice from Bulls television analyst and former NBA player Stacey King to always run hard down the middle of the court after a change of possession to set up opportunities for easy baskets and offensive rebounds. With the Bulls playing at a faster pace this season, Carter's ability to beat opposing centers on the offensive end has already resulted in more scoring chances.

The Bulls coaching staff is still hoping Carter will develop his shooting range to the point where he can be a consistent threat from three-point territory, but at this point that’s not a high priority in the offense. Carter is outstanding in the pick-and-roll, setting solid screens and then rolling hard to the basket for lob passes. He also has the ability to pop out to the elbow area for midrange jump shots.

With all the preseason conversation focused on the possibility of Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen making the jump to All-Star consideration, Carter is the player making the biggest leap early in the season. And his increased production is coming without designed plays being run for him.

The Bulls’ offense doesn’t call for multiple entry passes into the low post, but we saw during Carter’s one season at Duke that he has a nice touch shooting jump hooks from close range with either hand. Carter’s offensive game figures to expand in the coming seasons, but his skill in protecting the rim and controlling the defensive backboard already makes him extremely valuable to what the Bulls are trying to accomplish.

Plus, we already know that a competitive fire burns deep inside the 20-year-old Carter. After former teammate Bobby Portis torched the Bulls for 28 points and 11 rebounds in a come-from-behind victory for the Knicks at Madison Square Garden last month, Carter vowed it wouldn’t happen in Tuesday’s rematch at the United Center. 

“No words need to be said. We’re not letting that happen,” Carter said to reporters. “Bobby is going to want to put on a show. I’m not going to have it. I hope he’s watching this. I ain’t having it.”

Portis’ stat line in the Bulls’ blowout win following those comments? In 19 unproductive minutes, he tallied just 7 points and 3 rebounds on 3-of-9 shooting.

The Bulls’ 20-year-old locker room leader made sure he backed up his pregame comments. Now, he says he’ll look for something to fire up his teammates for every game left on the schedule.

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Kris Dunn continues to buy into role — and the Bulls are better for it

Kris Dunn continues to buy into role — and the Bulls are better for it

Jim Boylen has plenty of pet phrases. Role acceptance is one of them.

And if you want to get the Bulls coach rolling, ask him about Kris Dunn’s performance in that department.

“Big time. Big time,” Boylen repeated, for good measure. “He just wants to win. He’s the first guy in the breakfast room. You have to be in the building 45 minutes before [practice]. He’s in 1 hour, 45 minutes before. He does his workout 45 minutes before everybody else with Coach [Nate] Loenser. He is locked in. He cares. He always cared. And he’s playing winning basketball. I’m really happy for him.”

There may be no greater compliment from a coach to a player than to say one is playing winning basketball. Relayed Boylen’s comment, Dunn didn’t take it lightly.

“That means a lot. That’s what I try to do,” Dunn said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “I come from a winning program at Providence. I know what winning looks like. And I know what it takes to win.”

Right now, that involves Dunn accepting his role as a reserve aimed at wreaking defensive havoc on opponents. When Dunn scores 13 points, as he did in Tuesday’s victory over the Knicks, it’s a bonus.

There’s a lot going right with Dunn’s game these days. He leads the NBA with 25 steals, posting multiple steals in seven of 11 games. He has tallied 30 assists to just nine turnovers in 224 minutes, emblematic of solid decision-making. And he’s shooting 47.1 percent from the field — a figure made even more impressive by his anemic 17.6 percent shooting from 3-point range.

“I take pride in my defense,” Dunn said. “The second unit, I think we have good defenders in our group. Archie [Ryan Arcidiacono], he’s a dog. Thad [Young], he’s a dog. Coby [White], he’s a dog. I could go on and on. We try to come in and bring great energy and try to maintain the lead or, if we’re down, try to get it back.”

But Dunn’s biggest area of growth has been his role acceptance. It’s not easy losing a starting job, particularly when it comes on the heels of executive vice president John Paxson publicly challenging Dunn. And then the Bulls acquired Tomas Satoransky in a sign-and-trade transaction, drafted White and re-signed Arcidiacono.

Multiple outlets reported over the offseason that Dunn and his representatives wanted a change of scenery. The Bulls, league sources said in July, held trade talks with several teams, including the Grizzlies, regarding a sign-and-trade transaction for Justin Holiday.

Instead, Dunn returned. And since the first day of voluntary September workouts, he has maintained a positive attitude.

“It’s a good team we have. I just wanted to be a part of it. We have a lot of talented players, a good group of guys. I wanted to buy into what Coach is preaching, buy into the system,” Dunn said.  “All in all, I feel my game can go anywhere — starting, coming off the bench. Wherever you put me at, I’m a hooper.”

This example hasn’t been lost on young players like the rookie White.

“That’s my dog,” White told NBC Sports Chicago. “We’re part of the bench mob. Ain’t that right, KD? I love playing with KD. I know he’s going to compete at both ends. If things aren’t going well, he can turn the game around with his energy. He’s passionate. You love to play with people who play hard and want to win.

“Our relationship has grown on and off the court. He has instilled confidence in me. I haven’t been shooting it well before [Tuesday night]. KD told me to keep being aggressive and keep shooting. He’s always encouraging his teammates. When one of us does something good, he’s the first to hype us up.”

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