Can Lauri Markkanen really be the Bulls’ offensive centerpiece?

Lauri Markkanen struggled this season but has shown glimpses of his vast potential in the past. Can he really be the Bulls‘ offensive centerpiece?

After taking the NBA by storm during his first two seasons, many expected Lauri Markkanen to ascend into an All-Star caliber player this year. Unfortunately, the Finnish forward regressed and posted career lows in virtually every major statistical category while struggling to stay healthy. With the recent hiring of Billy Donovan, it’s obvious that Chicago is looking for a fresh start to try and get back into the playoff picture, but one question remains: Can Markkanen really be the Bulls’ offensive centerpiece?

In order to answer this question, let’s first take a look at what makes Markannen’s skillset so tantalizing. Standing at 7-feet, Markannen has the ability to consistently knock down 3s, as he currently shoots 36 percent from deep for his career even after accounting for his struggles this season. More importantly, he’s a good ballhandler who can take defenders off the dribble to either create his own shot or drive to the rim. Markkanen’s explosiveness makes it hard for opponents to keep up with his first step, and his athleticism allows him to sky up for dunks and alley-oops.

However, Markannen was relegated to being a spot-up shooter this season by former coach Jim Boylen. During his first two years in the league, the power forward had 47  and 42 percent of his shots come from beyond the arc, respectively. That number skyrocketed up to 54 percent in 2019-20. His 3-point attempts per game stayed about the same, as he shot 6.3 times from beyond the arc this year as opposed to 6.4 last season. On the other hand, he only had 5.5 2-point attempts this season, which was a far cry from the 8.9 he had just a year ago.

Looking at those numbers, it seems obvious that Boylen didn’t know how to utilize Markkanen properly; when you have a supremely versatile offensive big men, the last thing you should do is turn him into merely a spot-up shooter. The good news is that the Bulls now have Donovan at the helm, who is a very personable coach that has had success developing young players in the past.

If Donovan is able to run schemes that fully utilize Markkanen’s abilities, there’s no reason why he won’t be able to get the forward back on track. Remember, progression isn’t always linear; Jayson Tatum seemed to have regressed last season only to break out and become a star this year. Unfortunately, it won’t be that simple with Markkanen, since his biggest obstacle lies in his mentality rather than his abilities.

Lauri Markkanen’s lack of aggression on offense was a problem at times

Since entering the league, not many people questioned Markkanen’s potential, but his passiveness was often a topic of concern. There are times when he seemingly disappears during a game, and this has stretched for weeks on end. Earlier this season, Markkanen’s lack of assertiveness became so obvious that teammate Wendell Carter Jr. had to consistently remind him to stay aggressive on the court.

Some of that was due to his lack of touches in Boylen’s system, but Markkanen is also culpable for not putting himself in a better position to succeed. For instance, he could do a better job of playing off-ball by cutting to the rim or moving on the perimeter instead of just standing in the corner waiting for a pass. Even if he doesn’t touch the ball, his gravity will draw defenders to him and allow his teammates to get open shots. Being more involved in plays can boost his confidence and it’ll only be a matter of time before he carves out a larger role on offense.

Fans have already gotten a glimpse at the types of numbers that an aggressive Markkanen is capable of producing, as he averaged 26 points and 12 rebounds in February 2019 while also scoring over 20 points in 13 straight games. During that month, 62 percent of his shots were from inside the arc, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Markkanen struggled this past season when over half of his shots were 3s.

However, even if Markkanen does find some consistency when it comes to his assertiveness, he may not be able to be the tentpole of the Bulls’ offense. He certainly has the skillset to get there, but not every player is able to maximize their potential. There seem to be too many caveats that could limit him from reaching that point, like whether or not Donovan can utilize him properly and if he’ll ever be able to stay aggressive enough on a nightly basis. Even if Markannen is able to fix some of his issues, his health remains a big question mark as well; over his short career, he’s already missed almost an entire season’s worth of games due to unrelated injuries. No matter how potent Markannen becomes offensively, there’s nothing he can do to help his team if he’s constantly watching from the sidelines.

Markannen could certainly out up 20 and 10 next season as a reliable second option on offense and be viewed as a borderline All-Star. But it will take growth from the entire team and more synergistic offensive performances from players like Coby White and Zach LaVine for Chicago to get back into the playoffs.

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