Lauri Markkanen has a wicked sense of humor. Trust us. He does.
It’s when the camera lights turn on and the tape recorders start rolling that he slips into a more guarded phase, content to trade in the currency of cliché. Combine that dynamic with his mentality, which is to put the team before himself and never to rock the boat, and you’re not going to get much from the stoic Finn on his current struggles.
That’s where Zach LaVine steps in. LaVine and Markkanen, forever bonded by the Jimmy Butler trade, shoot straight with each other. And according to LaVine, Markkanen remains in a good place mentally, if not statistically.
“He just doesn’t seem in rhythm right now man. It’s a new offense. And I think it has a part to do with it,” LaVine said. “We just gotta help him find it. We’ve all gone through some struggles. I feel like everybody has been off rhythm in the beginning part of the year. I think everybody is shooting a lower field goal percentage than their (career) average.
“His spirits are still high. I know he’s worried about it but he’s not pressing yet. And I think that’s good to see. He hasn’t done anything out of character. He hasn’t lashed out or blamed anybody. He just wants to win. And that’s the type of player he is.”
Markkanen showed the world the type of player he can be last February with dominant double-double after dominant double-double. The organization publicly placed LaVine and Markkanen on a pedestal this offseason, declaring all offseason moves were made to clear the runway for their next steps.
Through 12 games, Markkanen is averaging a career low 14.4 points on career low 37.6 percent shooting and career low 27.8 percent 3-point shooting. His 11.8 shots per game also mark a career low and are well down from last season’s 15.3 per game.
“You can’t blame it all on the offense,” LaVine said. “Sometimes you have to go out there as a player and do what you do as well. That’s at least what I think.”
But what specifically about the offense does LaVine think is limiting Markkanen?
“It’s just different. We’re not getting as many postups. Like we’ve been showing, we’re trying to shoot 3s and get to the basket more,” LaVine said. “For somebody who I think is 7 foot, we just gotta get him some easy ones. Maybe him sometimes standing on the wing waiting for it isn’t the best for him.
“I think in the beginning I was trying to find my way with (the offense). I think it’s a little bit easier for me because I have the ball in my hand and I feel I can create a little better off the dribble and find my own shot. I think we have to help him find his easy shots. I told him, ‘If we’re in transition and you find a small, post up, man. Do what you do. Get in that rhythm. Get to the free throw line.’ I’m still out there trying to help him.
“We just have to do a better job of helping him get to his rhythm and find him. It sucks because you don’t want to see your guy out there struggling, especially you know how good he is and what he can do. He had that great first game. We haven’t been able to get back to it. We gotta find him some easy baskets to help him get in a rhythm. Without him, it’s going to be tough to play.”
Indeed, when Markkanen put up 35 points and 17 rebounds in the opener at Charlotte, flashbacks to February happened. Instead, Markkanen has posted three single-digit scoring games since and has attempted 10 or fewer shots in seven of 12 games.
“I think in general, the league is more prepared for him. I think in general, he's A-1 or A-2 on the scouting report and they're bringing physicality at him every night,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I also think we've demanded that he play better defense and more consistent defense. So being a two-way player at this level is very difficult.
“If you look at some of the matchup he's had, there are some tough matchups in our division, from (Kevin) Love to Giannis (Antetokounmpo) to Blake Griffin and these are all learning things for him. Yeah, we want him to be the Lauri Markkanen he was in February. We believe he can do that. Is he frustrated with that and does he want it? Of course.
“I show him the things he needs to do better. He understands what he needs to do. He's not a dummy. And he cares about the team. When he will break through, how he will break through---I can't tell you that. All I can tell you is he's trying to control the things he can control.”
Boylen has downplayed questions about Markkanen’s shot attempts, saying he’s playing the right way and taking what the game and defense dictate. But is that always a good thing? If Markkanen is a primary scoring option, should Coby White be attempting more shots in less playing time?
“He’s a young developing player. I think he’s had some moments where he can do better. I think he understands that. I think consistency for our group – not only him – has been a problem, and our growth plate for all of us,” Boylen said. “The thing I look at is does he continue to work and communicate and take ownership? I feel no delusional tendencies from him. He’s not making excuses, and as long as I see a guy working and caring, I believe he will play better and get back to who we think he can be.”
Maybe this will all blow over. Perhaps another dominant stretch is imminent. Until then, the questions will remain.
“He hasn’t been frustrated or pressing. He’s like, ‘I gotta get it going,’” LaVine said. “We’ve all missed some easy ones. When you’re in rhythm, those easy ones are automatic. We gotta make that hoop look big to him again. I think he’ll get back on track. He’s in the gym shooting. It’s 12 games in. Luckily, it’s not a 12-game season. But obviously we want to help him get on track faster than anything else.”
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