Ben Simmons

Lauri Markkanen celebrates 21st birthday with a spot on the NBA's All-Rookie First Team

Lauri Markkanen celebrates 21st birthday with a spot on the NBA's All-Rookie First Team

Lauri Markkanen’s celebration for his 21st birthday coincided with another major honor, being selected to the All-Rookie First team.

Markkanen received 76 of 100 possible first-team votes to join Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma on the first team. Mitchell and Simmons were unanimous selections and Tatum was one vote short of joining Mitchell and Simmons.

Markkanen, acquired on draft night in the package of players for Jimmy Butler, showed he was far more advanced than many expected. His 15.2 points per game ranked third among rookies and his 7.5 rebounds were first.

Markkanen was a constant in a topsy-turvy season for the Bulls, scoring 30-plus twice and hitting the 25-point plateau another three times. As a perfect fit in Fred Hoiberg’s offensive system, Markkanen had eight games where he hit four triples or more, including a game in New York where he drilled eight 3-pointers against the Knicks.

Only 15 rookies have hit more than 140 triples in NBA history, with Markkanen accomplishing the feat in 68 games—he was joined by Mitchell and Kuzma from this year’s star-studded class.

As the season progressed and Markkanen took hold of the power forward position, the Bulls began maneuvering personnel around him, trading disgruntled forward Nikola Mirotic and making a concerted effort to put Bobby Portis at center to pair Portis with Markkanen as a spread-shooting duo.

As the most impressive rookie the Bulls have employed since Derrick Rose, he’s also the first rookie since Taj Gibson in 2010 to make All-Rookie First Team.

Michael Porter Jr: 'I'm the best player in this draft'

Michael Porter Jr: 'I'm the best player in this draft'

Michael Porter Jr. trusts his process and in his mind it’s only a matter of time before people who matter believe in it too.

The NBA’s biggest question mark strolled confidently into the combine at Quest Multisport for a late afternoon media session, declaring next month’s draft is more than a two-player showcase.

“They had me as the No. 1 player in high school and I wasn't 100 percent. I'm still the best player,” he said. “I played against all these guys, they're all great players but I'm the best player in the draft.”

Suddenly, Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton heard their ears ringing at the notion, that a player who hasn’t truly been seen since the Adidas Nations showcase a year ago is better than the top stars in a star-studded class.

Porter has no swagger-dripping game-winners against the best overseas competition and certainly no tour de force campaign Ayton put together in Tucson. The lingering image to Porter’s name is a back injury that robbed him of essentially his entire freshman season at Missouri.

Three games are on his collegiate ledger, but his confidence and talent are as undeniable as the question marks surrounding him.

“Is he gifted or talented,” repeated one assistant general manager in attendance for the combine.

“He’s gifted.”

At 6-foot-10, scouts believe Porter has the greatest ability necessary to excel in a league full of multidimensional talents and transcendent stars: He can get a bucket, and get it easily.

“I was hoping to turn college basketball upside down like a lot of these players,” said Porter, mentioning Ayton and Trae Young as prospects who each had considerable time capturing the imagination of scouts and fans through the college season.

“But this is a step in my process to be the best player I can be,” Porter said. “It's a little different but I'm more ready than ever. I've been dreaming about this NBA stuff forever, I feel like I'm ready.”

Playing against Seattle-based pros like Jamal Crawford, Isaiah Thomas and DeJounte Murray gave him a confirmation of sorts, that missing the showcase one-and-done season cannot rob him of.

Seeing Philadelphia’s “Process” fulfillers, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, emerge after early injuries held them back, along with belonging on the floor with NBA players, gives him reason to believe he’ll be next.

“It was dope, I got used to playing with those guys,” Porter Jr. said of the Seattle players. “It was cool. It was weird, those guys are in the league but I was doing my thing. I felt good on the court, it was really good for me.”

The back injury that sidelined him at Missouri had been affecting him since his sophomore year in high school after being undercut during a dunk. Instead of resting it, he kept playing and things deteriorated—not after being the consensus No. 1 player in the country, in his eyes.

“I think I got a good glimpse in high school but I feel I far surpassed that player,” Porter said. “There (were) things I didn't want to do due to the back pain. But I think I'm a much better player.”

If his on-floor polish meets his ability to negotiate the task of answering the mundane questions asked by media members probing about which teams he met with — no, the league didn’t set up anything with the Bulls for the combine — he’ll be a find for whomever drafts him.

If his medical records check out.

Jared Sullinger’s back was red-flagged before the 2012 draft, when his freshman year at Ohio State had him pegged as a top-five pick.

He slid to Boston at 21 and had serviceable years, averaging 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds his second season, before things caught up with him in 2016-17. But Sullinger was undersized and battled weight issues as a post player.

Porter Jr., said the one executive and a few others, is “gifted”.

The combine is a place used for teams to unearth details about potential draftees through the interview process more than it is the five-on-five play or the measurements everyone goes through. They have thick folders of strengths and weaknesses for players on the floor, but can’t truly get to know them until sitting down with them.

Porter is the opposite.

He knows that’s the question, and he had no problem quoting the medical minutia, using the term “minimally invasive” to describe his November surgery that had him sidelined until early March.

Because seemingly, there should be no question about his game.

“It was a step back to take three steps forward,” Porter Jr. said. “It's been challenging but I feel 100 percent. I feel better than ever actually. I feel pain free and I haven't felt that way for a long time.”

Porter Jr. doesn’t know if he’ll release his medical records to every team, even though some league executives murmured teams should have access to every player as opposed to players and agents steering matters to their advantage — or at least acting in the client’s best interest.

“I can already go, full go. In the workouts I won't be holding back at all,” he said. “When I get on the floor, they'll see for themselves that I'm 100 percent. I feel great.”

He’s in a lose-lose situation to some degree. Of course he’s going to say he feels great and teams will see how he performs at full health, and of course it’ll be met with a certain amount of skepticism.

Critics can present his two-game late-season return to Missouri as “Exhibit A”, when his game against Georgia in the SEC Tournament and showing against Florida State in the opening round of the NCAA’s didn’t show the best player in the country.

Totaling 28 points and shooting 33 and 29 percent, respectively, won’t inspire much confidence but it doesn’t seem fair in the least to use that as evidence.

“I knew I wasn't gonna put on a show or be the Mike they saw in a few months,” Porter said. “Really just trying to help my team and not be selfish with the decision. We had six players on scholarship and two got injured. Just trying to do what I can.”

He declared for the draft soon after, and has been in Chicago for the past several weeks, working out at Quest Multisport to get himself right.

Porter Jr. remembers going through every step of the rehab process — the cautious stage where being careful was recommended as things healed gradually, instances where he had to build strength in his left leg, the leg he explodes from.

Then the step of trusting his body, which he didn’t do at first when he was given the green light to “push it as hard as it gets”, he said.

“It was weird, especially going back to play at Missouri,” Porter Jr. said. “Even at practice, I was trying to be different as a player. Not trying to get to the rim and dunk on anybody. I had the power in my leg, I know I can jump and dunk it but I was jumping two inches off the ground.”

He’s well past that point now, he claims, and has no problem addressing whatever concerns teams have — again, believing he’s in the upper crust of draft prospects but saying he’s not tied to having his name called first.

“At the end of the day, I don't have to go No. 1. I don't have the ego to go No. 1,” Porter Jr. said. “I just want to be in the right situation for me. Look at (Utah’s) Donovan Mitchell. But I think when I work out I'll be in that conversation, yes.”

He feels his versatility in a positionless league, businesslike approach and undeniable gifts will make some team happy and others regretful when it’s over.

He talks it.

He’ll have the chance to show he can walk it.

NBA Playoffs' youth movement makes clock on long rebuilds tick quicker than ever

NBA Playoffs' youth movement makes clock on long rebuilds tick quicker than ever

New blood has injected life into the opening week of the NBA Playoffs as youthful newcomers have found the bright lights just to their fitting.

For those on the outside looking in, half-decade rebuilding plans appear tougher to sell to fan bases and ownership groups watching players on rookie scale deals outperform their contracts.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown weren’t expected to lead the Boston Celtics this season, but they’ve been thrust into leading roles after Gordon Hayward’s season-ending injury on Opening Night and Kyrie Irving’s knee troubles shut him down weeks before the postseason.

But they’ve shown there’s no need to be treated with kid gloves, that redshirting is for the minor leagues. Tatum hasn’t gotten the extra publicity of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, but he’s not to be forgotten about in the playoff equation.

Brown had the benefit of being a rookie for the Celtics last season, and was more bystander than active participant.

But he’s still 21 years old, months younger than Mitchell and Simmons.

The two frontrunners for Rookie of the Year are certainly franchise players, and although they have major help on their respective rosters by way of veterans or fellow phenoms, one could argue the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers would have made the playoffs regardless.

The playoffs used to be a place reserved for the veterans, a higher plane of air that young lungs weren’t yet prepared for.

But Simmons is posting numbers that have statisticians scrambling for box scores from the tape-delay era for reference, while Mitchell is showing the teams who passed him up they should check their scouting and decision making.

And even though we could be in store for more of the same in the Finals if LeBron James’ Cavs meet Stephen Curry’s Warriors in June, the road to get there will be filled with so many new faces sure to be more than potholes in the years to come.

Recent NBA history can’t be written without the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder having significant ink. But each is on the verge of going fishing, trailing 3-1 after four games.

Instead, the 76ers are now darlings, the Celtics are chugging along without main cogs and the Jazz aren’t far away from catching the attention of casual fans to become must-see TV.

There’s a shift going on in the NBA, with slow-moving franchises hoping for a traditional clock on a rebuild taking the risk of being passed by those more determined, more opportunistic and unbothered by job security in the pursuit of winning now.

If you have something close to a unicorn, your house better be in order. Of the rising stars who have a level of establishment in the league’s hierarchy, only Kristaps Porzingis’ New York Knicks and Devin Booker’s Phoenix Suns are sitting on the outside of the playoff party. Porzingis is recovering from an ACL injury suffered midseason, otherwise the Knicks would have likely been in contention for a playoff spot.

The Suns, well, they’re a mess.

And it’s no coincidence both franchises are on the hunt for new coaches.

The talent pool in the NBA is so vast, its players seemingly so prepared for the transition to the professional game that the clock on franchises to wait on its players ticks louder than it ever has.

Factoring in booming salaries with young players poised to cash in on restricted free agency, franchises need answers on its young players—and they need them in the form of impact, in the form of wins.

Short of the Philadelphia 76ers’ sham and scam of the league’s rules by tanking for half a decade, it’s tough to envision a team duplicating the strategy with lottery reform on the horizon.

If done right, turnarounds can happen quicker than saving yourself a seat at the draft lottery four or five years in a row.

A correct mix of scouting, coach selection and veteran influence can put teams back in the playoff hunt quicker than before—as opposed to having similarly talented players making big money without having proven much.

For some fan bases, it represents hope.

For some front offices, you wonder if a shudder of fear is seeping into their buildings, knowing their clock is ticking.