I remember draft night back in 2017. I was sitting at a friend’s house watching the draft with a few people, following the rumor mill on Twitter, and having a good time. Then the tweet came across from Woj or Shams: The Bulls were trading Jimmy Butler to Minnesota for Zach LaVine (ugh), Kris Dunn (UGH), and the #7 pick (hmmm…..). That was it for Jimmy Butler? I had never believed in Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn had shown absolutely nothing in his rookie year, but the 7th pick was enticing.
If you follow me back to 2017, still on the table were Frank Ntilikina – who was highly regarded in this draft, Bam Adebayo – who I was not high on after watching him at UK for a full year up close, Malik Monk – who I WAS high on after watching him at UK for a full year up close, Dennis Smith Jr, TJ Leaf was another regarded project, Donovan Mitchell was projected right where he was drafted (and being a Louisville fan, that’s right where I would’ve had him too), but there was another talented prospect out there by the name of Lauri Markkanen.
I was really into Lonzo Ball back in 2017 and I happened to catch UCLA vs Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament, I think, while watching Ball. But this 7 footer kept catching my eye and I was like, “Man…I’d love to have this guy on the Bulls.” I don’t watch a lot of Pac-12 basketball, so I started Googling Markkanen and became impressed with what I saw. Then the Bulls took him at #7 in 2017. It immediately made me feel better about the Jimmy Butler trade because I knew we were getting a talented big man back.
We’ve seen three years of Lauri Markkanen’s career to this point. It’s been rough for him. He’s played 68, 52, and 50 games in his three years. He’s had two idiotic coaches in Fred Hoiberg and the incompetent Jim Boylen. Arguably, he doesn’t fit well next to the team’s best player – a ball dominant shooting guard, who doesn’t really create for others. Last year, he was required to do something he’s not qualified to do: Stand at the three-point line like Kyle Korver and launch threes at a high clip. That’s never been his game. Many compared him to Dirk Nowitzki when he came out of college because he’s tall, white, and foreign I suppose, but I always saw him as the evolution of Tom Chambers. Chambers was 6’10, athletic, and could play around the perimeter (more mid-range than threes back in the 80s and 90s). Chambers could put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. That’s more Markkanen’s game. Can he hit threes? Absolutely. But he can also dunk on you and take you off the dribble. That part of his game was eliminated by the “genius” of former coach Jim Boylen.
Under Boylen, Markkanen’s usage rate dropped to 21.1%, lower than his rookie season (21.9%). He lost 4 field goal attempts per game from the previous season (11.8 down from 15.3). Over half of his field goal attempts were from three compared to about a third being from three the previous season. His rebounding numbers dropped by 3, his minutes were reduced 3 minutes per game, and his scoring dropped 4 points per game. In 2018-2019, he averaged 66.2 touches per game. Last season? 45.3. Jim Boylen obviously didn’t value what Lauri Markkanen could bring to the table.
But that will change this season. Back in September, Cody Westerlund tweeted that Markkanen’s first conversation with new coach Billy Donovan included him asking Lauri where he wanted the ball on the court:
Here’s what Billy Donovan had to say yesterday at Bulls Media Day (from NBC Chicago):
“I’ve had some conversations with Lauri,” Donovan told reporters. “I do think with a young player as gifted offensively as Lauri is, it does take time for the league to kind of catch up to a player. I think as people have seen him, and certainly he’s had to battle some injuries, he like Wendell (Carter Jr.) has to find his identity offensively.
“Everybody knows he can put the ball on the floor and he can shoot it. But can we try to create some situations for him where he becomes a little more difficult to guard. I think it’s two-fold. I think one, it’s him understanding how to attack size mismatches. The other part of it is the team having recognition in transition of when he’s open to find him because when you close to him, he has enough skill to go by you.
“And then I think the other part for him is him getting into the teeth of the defense when he does drive it, have the physicality to finish at the basket, get fouled, get to the free throw line. I think Lauri has really worked hard this offseason. I think he’s going to continue to evolve and get better. What I do not want him to be from watching film is what I would say a one-dimensional, catch-and-shoot forward. I think those guys become too easy to guard.”
Clearly, Billy Donovan knows what he has in Lauri Markkanen and he plans to utilize him to his potential in this revamped Bulls offense. But this is the year for Lauri Markkanen. It’s year 4, there’s no more excuses, no more roadblocks. If he has it, this is the year he has to show it.
All I know is that from my condo here on Lauri Island, the weather is looking perfect, not a cloud in sight. Lauri Markkanen is about to show out for the Chicago Bulls this season.