Lauri Markkanen

Season in Review: Otto Porter shoots the lights out in small sample size

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USA TODAY

Season in Review: Otto Porter shoots the lights out in small sample size

Over the next month we'll be recapping each of the Bulls' individual 2018-19 regular seasons.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Shaq Harrison | Ryan Arcidiacono

Midseason expectations: Otto Porter Jr. arrived in Chicago the same night the Bulls posted a 126.3 offensive rating in a 125-120 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. Maybe that was foreshadowing for how the offense would look two days later when Porter made his Bulls debut. That was the expectation, at least, that Porter would infuse life into a stagnant Bulls offense, space the floor and give the Bulls some versatility on the defensive end. Given the Bulls were 12-42 when Porter arrived, the expectation was that he’d gain some chemistry with Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen heading into the 2019-2020 season when he’d have an entire offseason to figure out a defined role.

What went right: How about 49 percent from beyond the arc? Again, it was a small sample size, but Porter connected on 39 of his 80 3-point attempts in 15 games with the Bulls. Perhaps a change of scenery and leaving that nightmare of a John Wall-less Wizards offense, was exactly what he needed. Past his lights-out shooting, Porter showed a knack for distributing that he rarely showed in Washington.

Consider that Porter had 40 assists in 15 games with the Bulls, half of the 80 assists he had with the Wizards in 41 games. He had a career-high eight assists for the Bulls in a March game against the Pistons, three more than his high in Washington last season. Porter is never going to initiate offense but playing well in pick-and-roll action and keeping the ball moving around the perimeter only adds to his value.

What went wrong: Pegged as two-way player when he arrived in Chicago, Porter didn’t do all that much on the defensive end. The Bulls were 1.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Porter sat than when he played. It’s a small sample size, and the Bulls defense was a mess regardless of who was or wasn’t on the floor, but it’s hard to pick out any real significant defensive plays that Porter made in his 15 games.

The Stat: 111.5

We’ll disclaim here that it was just a 17-game sample size, but that’s still more than 20 percent of the season. In the 17 games between Porter’s acquisition and when he was shut down for the remainder of the season, the Bulls’ 111.5 offensive rating was ninth best in the NBA, better than teams such as the Warriors, Hawks, Sixers and Nuggets.

What’s more, their turnover percentage (13.3%, 13th), effective field goal percentage (53.0%, 11th) and offensive rebound percentage (26.1%, 15th) were all top half of the league. It was their best stretch of the season, and it was no coincidence that it came while Porter was in the lineup and healthy. Small-ish sample size? Yes. Still promising? Yes.

2019-20 Expectations: A lot. No, the Bulls didn’t give Porter that massive contract. But it’s going to stick with him as long as the Bulls are paying him. Expectations are clear: Continue to be an elite 3-point shooter and move the ball – whether it be around the perimeter or in pick-and-roll action – once the defense shifts.

Speaking of defense, Porter will be tasked with changing the narrative in Chicago. The Bulls need to improve their defense if they’re going to have any change of competing for a playoff spot and much of that responsibility will fall on Porter. He’ll routinely be guarding the opponent’s best wing and will need to hide Zach LaVine at times. It’s a tall order, but it comes with the territory while making $27 million per year.

NBA Draft: What the Bulls would get in Ja Morant

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft: What the Bulls would get in Ja Morant

Success at the point guard position has never been more critical than it is in today’s NBA. Consider that in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the top 30 leading scorers in each season included 12, 8 and 10 point guards. That was an incredible jump from just a decade earlier, when 3, 2 and 3 point guards were included in the top 30 leading scorers in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

A point guard has won MVP each of the last four seasons (Curry twice, Westbrook, Harden) after the position combined to win three MVPs from 1956 to 2014 (if you’d like to count Allen Iverson or Magic Johnson as point guards, feel free to do so. The point remains).

Of the last three draft classes, 2, 3 and 2 point guards were selected in the top-5. The three years prior to that? 1, 1 and 0 point guards went in the top-5.

The strategy is becoming clear: Find your franchise point guard. And ironically it’s the one aspect of the Bulls rebuild that they haven’t aced in terms of unearthing future talent. They traded for and developed a shooting guard in Zach LaVine. They used their expiring contracts and abundant cap space to acquire a small forward in Otto Porter. They drafted their frontcourt in Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter.

And yet the point guard position remains a mystery. Lucky for them, there’s an answer in this year’s draft class.

Two years ago, Ja Morant was an unranked point guard from South Carolina starting as a freshman for a Murray State team that had gone 16-17 the previous year. A lot has happened since then for Morant, who arrived on the national scene after a dominant sophomore season in which he led the country in assists, became the first player in NCAA history to average 20 points and 10 assists, and earned All-American honors for a 28-win Racers team that won an NCAA Tournament game. Here’s how he did it:

Morant was far and away the best transition player in basketball last season. He led the country with 268 transition points, 53 more than anyone else. In fact, the difference from Morant to No. 2 was the same as No. 2 to No. 29 in total transition points.

But it wasn’t just volume scoring; Morant’s 1.202 points per possession on transition attempts ranked 30th in the country. He was absolutely elite as a transition scorer, using his lightning-quick speed to get out on the break and his athletic 6-foot-3 frame to finish at the rim.

But wait, there’s more. Morant also assisted on 93 transition field goals to his teammates. That was nearly 29 percent of his season total, and it doesn’t include passes he made that led to free throw attempts. Morant will enter the NBA as one of the best transition threats in the league. Those instincts, combined with his speed and agility, will convert seamlessly. And in an NBA that just topped 100.0 possessions per game for the first time since 1989, Morant is arriving at the perfect time.

Keeping with the trend of NBA-relatable traits, Morant put together an excellent season in pick-and-roll on an incredibly high volume, averaging 0.776 points per possession in 254 actions. Morant hovered near the likes of Trae Young (0.881 PPP on 335 possessions) and De’Aaron Fox (0.852 on 162 possessions) in this category. Give Morant a capable rim-runner or pick-and-pop shooter (in the Bulls’ case, they have both) and it’ll only make him more explosive. Consider that Morant did all this with defenses keying in on him every night.

Morant did most of his damage in these two areas. That’s good news for his NBA prospects – though admittedly he’ll need to work heavily on his 3-point shot. He’s going to score plenty; Russell Westbrook has averaged 26.3 points per game over the last five seasons and shot 30.9% from beyond the arc.

Guess what else Morant has in common with Westbrook? An assist rate that’ll make you blush. His assist rate of 51.4 percent led the country and he did so on a 36.0 usage rate. Morant distributed in every way imaginable and made it look easy – and anyone knocking his lack of competition should Google what he did against Alabama, Auburn, Marquette and Florida State this past season. Whether it came in transition, off pick and roll or on isolation dribble-drives, Morant kept the ball moving with crisp passes and elite court vision. He’s going to have a direct and immediate impact on whichever offense he joins.

Morant has the frame to become a solid defender at the position but still needs work on that end. He’s a gambler – which was fine against the likes of Austin Peay and UT Martin – and his effort has come into question at times. Athleticism does not equal defense (ask Zach LaVine) but Morant has a chance to improve on that end because of his measurables.

He’d be a no-brainer pick for the Bulls at No. 2. We’ve written ad nauseum about why the Kris Dunn experiment is over, and any veteran free agent signing would be a stopgap. Instead, the Bulls have a chance to find their future at the position. Yes, a Moran-LaVine pairing in the backcourt isn’t ideal defensively. The Bulls don’t have the luxury of waiting around as they enter Year 3 of the rebuild. If there’s a franchise point guard on the board, you grab him.

He'd force Jim Boylen’s hand into picking up the pace offensively, and his pick-and-roll prowess plays right into the hands of Markkanen and Carter. Add in 3-point wings in LaVine and Porter and you’ve got a match made in heaven. There isn’t a better fit for any team in the Lottery than Morant and the Bulls.

Season in Review: Injuries overshadow another promising year for Lauri Markkanen

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USA TODAY

Season in Review: Injuries overshadow another promising year for Lauri Markkanen

Over the next month we'll be recapping each of the Bulls' individual 2018-19 regular seasons.

Preseason expectations: The Bulls knew they had something in Markkanen after he garnered All-NBA Rookie First Team honors. Twenty pounds of added muscle over the summer felt like a natural next step for the 7-footer after he spent the majority of his rookie season on the perimeter on offense and getting bullied inside on the other end. Without knowing what a healthy Zach LaVine would look like, Markkanen was expected to take the reigns as the No. 1 scorer thanks to his perfect fit in Fred Hoiberg’s pace-and-space offense.

It was also expected that he’d work well in the flow of the offense with LaVine and Kris Dunn, while rookie Wendell Carter Jr. could help hide some of his shortcomings defensively.

What went right: The entire month of February. Markkanen wasn’t bad at all in his first two months back from his sprained right elbow but he took his game to a different level when January ended. Markkanen averaged 26.0 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.4 3-pointers in 10 outings, single-handedly taking over games and, most importantly, leading the Bulls to wins. As much as Otto Porter’s addition helped timing-wise, Markkanen hitting his stride was the real catalyst behind the Bulls’ 5-5 February, their best record of any month.

Markkanen also became more versatile. His assist rate was nearly identical but he showed a ton of improvement in that area, especially in transition. He nearly doubled his drives per game (3.6 to 6.0) and also increased the percentage of times he scored points on those drives (63.5% to 68.4%). That drag step leaner off the glass is going to become his trademark. His percentages didn’t improve but we’ll chalk that up the elbow sprain that cost him a training camp and threw him into the heart of the season once he was ready to return. A healthy summer and fall should have him flirting with 47/39/87 numbers compared to his first two seasons in which he shot 43/36/86. He has limitless potential as a scorer.

What went wrong: Injuries. Markkanen suffered a sprained right elbow in training camp that cost him 23 games over 10 weeks, and extreme fatigue and an episode of a rapid heart rate cost him the final 10 games of the season. Neither injury/illness leads one to believe that he’s injury-prone, but it stunted his growth in what was looking like a critical development year for him. Truth be told, he was pretty average down the stretch of the season before the Bulls shut him down. Additionally, the Bulls’ next rebuilding step is trying to see how pieces around Markkanen fit. That’s difficult to do when he’s not on the court.

And not that he needs to in order to be successful, but he’s just an average defender at this point in his career. Again, this was an injury-riddled season and he’s still 21 years old. It’s more an observation than a knock on him. The Bulls were better defensively with him off the floor this season, and his DRPM was 80th among 98 power forwards, per ESPN.com. He’s never going to be Kristaps Porzingis as a defender but 73 blocks in 120 career games is probably not enough. He moves well laterally on switches but still gets beat too often. That and his 3-point shooting will be two areas to watch for next season.

The Stat: 18-9-2

There might not be a more unique skill set in basketball than the one Markkanen possesses. He finished his injury-plagued season averaging 18.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.3 3-pointers. Yes, the NBA’s 3-point renaissance is new so forgive the cherry-picking, but Markkanen is one of four players in NBA history to average 18 points, nine rebounds and two 3-pointers. The others? DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love (twice) and Russell Westbrook.

Don’t care for the 3-point distinction? How about Markkanen averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds in his second NBA season? That’s been done just 14 other times by 10 players: Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns all did it twice; John Collins, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Amar’e Stoudemire and Antoine Walker did it once. Those two lists are excellent ones for the Bulls’ rising star to be on.

2019-20 Expectations: Zach LaVine stole the show in the 10 weeks Markkanen missed at the beginning of the season, but this is still Markkanen’s team. At 21 years old and posting historic numbers, he’s still the face of the franchise. His goal next season should be to play 75 games, join the All-Star conversation – the Bulls’ record will determine whether or not he makes the team – and establish himself as the alpha. LaVine has a critical role in this rebuild, but Markkanen has the potential to be a mega-star. Presuming he has a healthy summer and training camp, that should be the expectation.