In the final installment of roster breakdowns, the Bulls big men go under the microscope. Jason Goff is joined by Bulls insider K.C. Johnson, and former Bulls big man and NBC Sports Chicago Bulls analyst Will Perdue to discuss why Lauri Markkanen dropped in production this year, what kind of player Wendell Carter Jr. will be in the NBA, and the contributions made by both rookie Daniel Gafford and free agent big Luke Kornet.
(1:20) - Lauri Makkanen underwhelmed this year
(8:20) - Is Lauri Markkanen more than just a pick and pop player?
(13:50) - What kind of player can Wendell Carter Jr. become?
(20:56) - Daniel Gafford could be a contributor in the NBA for a long time
Lauri Markkanen obviously took a step back in his third season. We’ve written about it enough. But let’s take a few moments to focus on the positives of his game, because there remain plenty.
Even after a down shooting season, the marksmanship he’s shown at his size — and age — is historic. Markkanen is one of five seven-foot-or-taller players in league history to shoot better than 35% from 3-point range (min. 100 3PA, 2 3PA/g) in his first three seasons, and did it on by far the most attempts. At age 23, he finds himself in the top 10 of 3-point attempts and makes in Bulls history. That’s obviously a product of his era as much as anything, but he’s a better-than-average threat in most every shooting context, nonetheless. At his position, that’s incredibly valuable.
And he’s nimble with the ball in his hands, too. Jim Boylen was widely derided for hinting that Markkanen pound the defensive glass for more opportunities on the offensive end, but Lauri’s grab-and-go fastbreak ability is one of his more unique talents. When he’s on the move, his craftiness around the basket (do we have a name for his trademark one-legged, off-balance floater? The Lauri Lean?) and some sneaky playmaking ability shine. He’s a tremendously skilled, versatile offensive big.
The first game of the season, when he posted season-highs in points (35), rebounds (17) and field goal attempts (25), still endures as the most sterling example of all of the above from 2019-20. That his jumper wasn’t falling in this game made it an all the more encouraging start:
Areas to Improve
The problem was, in a third season that began with high hopes, moments of that skill set flashing through were few and far between. Markkanen’s touches tanked (66.2 per game in 2018-19 to 45.3 in 2019-20), playing time fluctuated (his 29.8 minutes per game average is just a hair above his rookie year) and he struggled to find his comfort zone in the Bulls’ new offensive system — one that, on paper, once appeared perfectly suited to his talents. In practice, he spent too many nights an ancillary component. Markkanen posted career-lows across the board — except in 3-point volume, 53.6% of his shots were 3s — and was assisted on 73.3% of his baskets, a mark on par with more low-usage lob-catchers and spot-shooting role players than franchise cornerstones. A hot December was swallowed by otherwise inconsistent production.
The root of Markkanen’s regression lies in the eye of the beholder. If you believe the source of his struggles was a lack of intentionally spotlighting him in the team’s gameplan, or sporadic minutes, you’re not wrong. If you believe Markkanen could have been more assertive taking his destiny into his own hands, and that the blame for shooting slumps should fall primarily on the player, you’re not necessarily wrong there, either. Injuries — oblique (soreness) and ankle (sprain) issues, and a stress reaction in his pelvis that sidelined him 15 games — nagged him, as well; he’s appeared in 102 of 147 possible games in his last two seasons.
But the sanitation of his shot profile clearly sapped some of his offensive versatility, and his overall game suffered for it. Markkanen’s defensive rebounding rate — once thought of as a strength — plunged from 35.1% (68th percentile) to 29.5% (52nd) between his second and third seasons, per Cleaning the Glass. He didn’t make strides as a perimeter or interior defender in a hyper-active defensive system that often left the Bulls’ bigs scrambling — of 48 players this season who defended more than five field goal attempts per game inside six feet (min. 30 games), Markkanen ranked 46th in defended field goal percentage (64.3%). Though a career-high 35% of his field goal attempts came at the rim on the other end in 2019-20, per Cleaning the Glass, his 63% conversion rate ranks in just the 29th percentile for his position. His 0.91 assist-to-turnover ratio equals Carmelo Anthony’s.
The hope is an extended offseason could serve as a much-needed recharge. If/when the Bulls next play, staying healthy, finding consistency shooting the ball, getting on the move on the offensive end, and rebounding are prime areas to watch for a Year 4 resurgence. Mixing up his shot profile a tad — or at least, how he’s getting his looks; e.g. he was used as a roll-man in pick-and-roll 0.8 possessions per game less in 2019-20 than 2018-19, and his drives dipped by nearly two per game — could help on a few of those fronts. The rest will follow.
The sky can still be the limit for Markkanen. He’s just 23, after all, and bursting with promise, especially on the offensive end. Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis have always been popular comparisons, but thus far, it actually seems Markkanen is more agile than both when he’s humming — though he’ll likely never match Dirk’s shooting, nor Porzingis’ two-way presence around the basket.
Year 3 was a wakeup call, but it can also serve as a springboard for a bounceback, especially given the Bulls new front office regime’s stated focus on getting him back on the right track. Extension talks loom. In the East, All-Star potential still exists. His work is cut out for him.
10.3 ppg, 4.9 RPG, 1.8 APG | 44.8% FG, 35.6% 3PT, 58.3% FT | 19.2% USG
July 2019: Signed 3-year, $43,635,000 deal
2020-21: $13,545,000 | 2021-22: $14,190,000*
*Partial guarantee: $6,000,000
Young’s signing last offseason was widely praised because of his veteran status, defensive versatility and savvy offensive game. The perfect supplementary role player and reliable guiding hand to help usher the Bulls into the next phase of the rebuild.
The first and second of those considerations mostly panned out. Young was a consistent source of perspective within the Bulls locker room, and was often praised by teammates for his smarts and mentorship. That’s a presence that should still be valuable for a team among the youngest in the league. After early-season rumblings about being dissatisfied with his role, it became evident that, in Young's case, with more opportunity, production follows — he averaged 32.3 minutes, 13.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals on 51.2% field goal shooting (41.7% from 3) in 15 starts filling in for an injured Lauri Markkanen from late January to early March. He also stayed healthy, missing just one game of the Bulls’ 65 for personal reasons.
Offensively, Young had to adapt to a run-and-gun, 3-pointer heavy style he hadn’t been asked to fully play throughout his 13-year career in his first season with the Bulls. There were bumps early on — when the calendar flipped, he was shooting 39.3% from the floor, 32.4% from deep and 49% in the restricted area. But by the end of the season, he became a reliable enough spot-up shooting threat (from November to February, his 3-point attempts and percentage lineally increased month-over-month), and dragged his finishing closer to league-average (he shot 64.2% in the restricted area from Jan. 2 on, finishing the season with a 57.3% mark from that range). His 3.5 3-point attempts per game and 35.6% conversion rate are both second-best season-long marks for his career.
Areas to Improve
Still, Young finished 2019-20 with non-rookie-year career-lows in points, rebounds and minutes per game, and finished under 45% field goal shooting for a season for the first time. Those figures belie the progression enumerated above, but they matter.
Young is who he is at this point in his career. And what he is is a productive role player/plug-and-play starter, and locker-room boon. Asking him to change his game any more than the Bulls already have feels both unrealistic and unreasonable, but continued improvements as a spot-up shooter and settling in around his career reputation as an interior scorer would go a long way towards extending his productive years. His steadiness on the defensive end isn’t going anywhere.
The biggest consideration facing Young with respect to his future with the Bulls is that he and Lauri Markkanen did not prove a congruous on-court frontcourt pairing in 2019-20 (lineups featuring Young and Markkanen were outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions in 279 minutes), meaning playing time for one often came at the expense of the other. That, combined with the Bulls’ team-wide woes, casts doubt on Young’s fit moving forward. Trade rumors swirled about him from December through the deadline.
Young undoubtedly still has multiple more seasons of 12-6-1.5 (steals per game) type production in him. He can still be a valuable piece for the Bulls. The decision the new front office regime might soon face is whether or not the teams’ priorities align as closely as they seemed to this time last year.