When June 22nd, 2017 began, Lauri Markkanen had no idea he’d be the centerpiece of the endlessly dysfunctional Chicago Bulls’ rebuild by the end of the night.
At around 7:30 P.M, the #Wojbomb dropped. GarPax, the nickname for the Bulls’ hapless front office duo of Gar Forman and John Paxson, shipped homegrown star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves to reunite him with former Bulls’ coach Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls also dealt the 16th overall pick in the draft in exchange for the number seven pick, which became Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn (and his broken jump shot) and a rehabilitating Zach Lavine, fresh off of an ACL tear.
In the coming months, the Bulls bought out veterans Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, leaving the franchise faceless, thus concluding a steep fall from the days of a healthy Derrick Rose.
The Bulls new pitch to fans was one of youth and optimism, despite the lack of both on the roster aside from Markkanen. The backcourt contained question marks in the form of four-year college starters once deemed ‘safe’ picks. The frontcourt, on the other hand, was a hodgepodge of average NBA players, further complicated with the resigning of Nikola Mirotic.
This was the case with the frontcourt until the punch heard ‘round the world. With Mirotic sidelined and Portis suspended to start year, the Bulls had no choice but to #freeMarkkanen.
And since being freed, Markkanen has dazzled. Through five games, the Finnish sensation has averaged 15.6 points per game on 41.7% shooting from deep, to go along with 9.6 rebounds per game.
Docked for having a lackluster attack off of the bounce, Markkanen has put these previous concerns to rest to begin the year. Markkanen has showed a tremendous ability to take defenders off the catch, as he unleashes his endless supply of dribble and spin moves near the basket. He has thus far attacked the basket with authority, and has shown surprising strength despite his slender frame. Additionally, Markkanen has shown deft touch on his dribble pull-ups, and a relatively high offensive IQ for a rookie when picking and choosing his actions.
While Markkanen has attacked well, his finishing has left a little to be desired. However, as he ages and becomes more accustomed to how NBA bigs defend the rim, Markkanen will become more adept at finishing through contact and over defenders.
In addition to his off the catch game, Markkanen has been strong in the pick and pop. His high release enables him to get off almost every shot, and the threat of him shooting draws defenders, clearing the lane for attacking guards. In the future, however, Markkanen will need to roll more often to keep defenders from cheating on the pop.
On the defensive side of the ball, Markkanen has, as expected, had his struggles. Like all rookies, he’s often too eager to help one pass away on the perimeter, a sin within NBA circles. Markkanen is occasionally too late on his rotations, but has shown improved foot speed and positioning from his time at the University of Arizona. Markkanen is fluid in his movements, which has convinced scouts he can at least become a decent defender both inside and out despite his average athleticism. As Markkanen adapts defensively to the speed of the NBA, he will show improvement on defense, particularly in regards to his defensive IQ and ability to snuff out opposing teams’ plays.
Markkanen has the potential to become a downright beast if he can further improve his ballhandling and passing, both already solid for someone his size. In regards to dribbling, Markkanen would as a result become stronger at attacking off the catch and creating for himself. Even scarier, Markkanen would be capable of leading the break, a sight that would put fear in the eyes of those tasked with stopping him in transition. By improving his passing, both on the perimeter and out of the post, Markkanen will become downright dangerous. At 7’1, Markkanen can see over the top of defenses when outside, and make skip passes when the defense over-rotates. From the post, Markkanen can establish himself as the key cog in Fred Hoiberg’s motion offense by kicking out for open triples when the defense collapses or making the right read and passing out of offensive splits.
Last year, Sean Miller’s use of Markkanen in late game situations was criminal. While himself talented, Allonzo Trier should not have been isolating defenders every single possession when sharing the floor with one of the most proficient scorers in college basketball on his team. Luckily, this year, Fred Hoiberg has no better options (sorry Paul Zipser). Markkanen will gain valuable late game experience with the ball in his hands, and be allowed to test his limits offensively in crunch time.
While by no means soft, Markkanen could stand to add a few pounds, so long as the extra weight doesn’t limit his footwork and speed on the perimeter. Markkanen could use the weight in the post versus opposing fives, his optimal position in the evolving world of small ball.
As he steadily improves offensively, Markkanen will blossom into an all-star if his defense becomes merely average. The future is extremely bright for the Finnish stud, so long as no teammates break his face during a practice altercation.