Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls are losing but Lauri Markkanen is leveling up

Lauri Markkanen is going to make us all look silly.

He’s going to prove how ridiculous it is at this point in NBA history to let a skilled 7-footer fall to the mid-lottery, no matter the questions that plague the rest of his game. He’s going to silence even the harshest critics of the Bulls’ much-mocked decision-making. Despite a preseason elbow sprain, it’s already starting to happen. Markkanen unleashed a killer February and Chicago has won seven of 16 since the All-Star break. All this, leading a young core that is suddenly more legitimate than laughable in the larger context of the league at the end of a season that was believed to be lost.

NBA rebuilds develop inertia. Teams start down one path, take the wrong player, and the franchise’s fortunes can snowball. The right player can likewise charge a franchise forward several years in an instant. Markkanen could be that player. The Bulls aren’t good right now, but they’re not far away. Strong play from the team’s core and smart moves in-season have set Chicago up to use a likely top-five pick this year to top off its young group rather than be its savior. They are quietly pretty deep with interesting players.

At the center of all of that is Markkanen, the toughest sort of player to find — a 7-foot shooting threat with playmaking know-how. His maneuverability within Chicago’s offense is entirely unpredictable. He makes things possible for the young Bulls that more experienced teams can only dream of manufacturing. He’s special.

“There’s never been a more coachable guy that I’ve been around who wants to help the team and do well,” Bulls coach Jim Boylen began.

Back on March 18 in Phoenix, coming off a 27-point blowout at the hands of the Kings, Chicago was downtrodden like a team that had much more to play for than pride. They had won seven of 15 games since the All-Star break and understood how important it was to keep momentum heading into the summer.

“But we’ve gotta get him out of this rut he’s in,” Boylen continued. “He’s gotta raise his energy level.”

Markkanen was even harsher on himself in a quick conversation pregame.

“It’s funny how mental it is,” he told The Step Back. “You’re playing well so you have confidence going into the game”

Then, when things get rough, like his 11-point, three-turnover outing in that big loss to Sacramento, “I still have a high level of confidence but…”

But it’s harder to kick yourself into gear when doubt creeps in. You start to feel the weight of high expectation and loss after loss a little more than when the wins were piling up.

“We’ve had a little bit of a rough stretch here the last couple weeks but I take a lot of that on me, too, not playing well enough to win games,” Markkanen added.

The duality within a young player not experienced enough to truly take over a game but with the yearning to dominate anyway is heartening and rare. One day, Markkanen may be able to dictate the outcome of mid-March games as an individual, but his limitations have prevented that day from coming just yet.

Markkanen’s versatility in the pick-and-pop, smoothly slipping screens and making plays facing up from the 3-point line, makes him nearly impossible to defend.

Even mobile bigs like Deandre Ayton struggle to recover in time to stifle Markkanen’s quick release. When the defense responds to the threat of his ability to score one-on-one, they will switch a smaller play onto him. Markkanen has seen it before — and knows when to roll.

When he’s locked in, Markkanen’s feel for the game allows him to score against nearly anyone. Smaller defenders — even the ones teams are okay switching onto him — have no chance in the paint against Markkanen’s long arms and legit 7-foot frame. Rhythm is important for him, but it can sustain for several games at a time. He scored 26 points per game on a 62.0 true shooting percentage in February.

Capitalizing on his natural feel and shooting ability in space, the Bulls have been more aggressive this year getting him going coast to coast with the ball in his hands. He’s improved his rebounding substantially this year and Chicago looks great when he’s putting pressure on the defense in transition.

“Good basketball for him is high energy, rebounding, pushing, making his open shots, driving the ball both ways and getting downhill when he can,” Boylen said. “To me, his formula is pretty simple, but you’ve gotta bring the juice, you’ve gotta bring the energy, and that’s what we’ve talked about.”

Certainly returning from the elbow injury was going to hamper his health and conditioning when he returned to the court, but this is an important stretch of Year Two for Markkanen. The Bulls need to start to get a read on his ceiling — not only to determine what types of players to target this summer but also as they start thinking about paying their core down the road. Is he a No. 1 scorer?

He’s only slightly above average from deep over his first two years in the league, but Markkanen is a legit shooter. That quick release and 30-plus-foot range will only make him harder to defend as he rounds out his skill set, and he’s quick enough to create space and comfortable launching off the catch in an instant.

The larger questions reside inside. Markkanen is big enough to finish over most defenders:

But his handle is loose and his passing isn’t sharp enough to be a legit triple threat at the elbow or on those pesky pick-and-pops. The Bulls are smart to put him in space the majority of the time, but he will have to score more consistently in the halfcourt to be the team’s go-to scorer. He has more turnovers than assists over the course of his career and is shooting just 61.2 percent in the restricted area, putting him in the 28th percentile for big men, per Cleaning the Glass.

Markkanen today is just clumsy when the ball stays in his hands too long.

He’s certainly not tight enough dribbling to handle the ball in the pick-and-roll as he tries above, but Boylen has empowered him on this lottery team to try. The opportunity to play through mistakes in game is huge, and despite the many criticisms of Boylen’s purportedly stubborn attachment to basics, he lets his players try new things. That will pay off when Chicago’s fortunes flip.

As an example, Markkanen is already improving as a passer despite all the turnovers.

And his scoring is coming more easily. “He has a better idea of where he needs to get to to get his buckets,” said center Robin Lopez.

For Markkanen to become a capable scoring sidekick to Zach LaVine or even Chicago’s top option, he will need to get better creating shots for himself. He has added a drop-step floater in the post and can bounce passes into tight spaces, but he’s inconsistent. A shooter and a scorer are two different things and Markkanen is working to fill out his game and become more of the latter.

But more than providing floor balance and some interior gravity to let Markkanen go to work outside, Lopez has helped make up for Markkanen’s defense. The sophomore is very far from where he needs to be defending the rim despite playing center in college at Arizona.

He’s actually able to get in the way more consistently against smaller players using his size and mobility to corral them on switches. Yet Markkanen rarely gets into a defensive stance and his rim-protection instincts will have to be built from scratch.

Lopez is optimistic. He’s played with the likes of Anthony Davis and Kristaps Porzingis early in their careers and understands this takes time.

“He’s making strides defensively,” Lopez said. “He’s always been a really smart player. It takes time to adjust, especially defensively to the NBA game. I think he’s done a great job of being very studious on that end of the floor.”

It’s a work in progress on both ends, but the combination of young leaders like LaVine and Otto Porter Jr. combined and the veteran Lopez seems to be helping Markkanen get comfortable. Boylen has been a seemingly positive force despite his detractors.

“Our coach is doing a great job,” Markkanen said, despite Boylen acknowledging he’s hard on the young big man.

“We watch his clips and things that he can do better, he’s gotta clean up some of those unforced errors, which he knows, make his open shots and continue to drive the ball,” Boylen added.

The Bulls are already making moves that show they believe in Markkanen as a centerpiece of their offense going forward. They’ve acquired pieces over the course of last summer into this season that show they want to continue to experiment with him. Wendell Carter Jr. is the perfect big to clean up for Markkanen on defense and Porter’s size and defensive versatility makes going small much easier.

When Chicago gets a legit point guard, all the young players will benefit. Until then, Markkanen will get to keep tinkering, failing and getting better.

Next: Stating the case for every Coach of the Year candidate

The Bulls were in better spirits after their victory in Phoenix. Carter — out for the season with a thumb injury, mind you — was trying to convince the rest of Chicago’s roster he could punch out Floyd Mayweather in the ring. LaVine said the reason they won was they were “trying to have a little bit more fun.”

As Markkanen says, the difference between winning and losing can be perceived almost entirely within the mind. A win lifts the spirits, a loss crushes them.

The Bulls like to say “learn and move on.” Boylen said it’s important to keep perspective,
“He’s 21 years old. He’s a huge part of what we’re building, we’re very thankful for him, he’s learning, growing.”

Rebuilding his hard but valuable repetition could be the key to building Markkanen from a floor-spacer into an All-Star.

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