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Next Season for Lauri Markkanen: Make or Break

As they say in the Drew League, no excuse – just produce. That same line goes for Lauri Markkanen for whenever the NBA returns to action.

Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports

The news of Arturas Karnisovas agreeing to a multimillion-dollar deal to become the Bulls’ new president of basketball operations is a great start for the rapidly revamped rebuild. Karnisovas, who has spent the last seven years in Denver’s front office, is expected to flip the entire Bulls front office over the coming week.

He has already fired Gar Forman, reassigned John Paxson into a senior advisor role, and has added names such as Pat Connelly to join the Bulls in a player personnel role, as well as J.J. Polk to serve as an assistant general manager.

The latter, Polk, spent the last ten seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans, including the last seven as the executive director of basketball administration. He is widely known around the league for his expertise regarding the salary cap and has been advising teams throughout the ongoing suspension about what to expect heading into the upcoming free agency period.

These moves are exceptional and show that Chicago is in fact on the rise once again. The Bulls, headlined by Michael Reinsdorf, are finally taking matters into their own hands and are focused on changing the direction set by previous management which has resulted in a losing record for the last three seasons. Karnisovas is fully focused on rebuilding the culture in Chicago and creating a winning team, with the latter something that hasn’t been evident in a Bulls’ locker room since the days of Derrick Rose.

However, the Bulls still have another growing concern that unfolded right in front of them throughout the course of this dismal season.

That being the situation of Lauri Markkanen.

Lauri Markkanen was primed for a massive third year in the Windy City. Last season he averaged 18.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists on 43% from the field, 36.1% from three, and 87.2% from the free-throw line. He had ‘future star’ all over him. He looked to be a legitimate seven-foot big man that flashed promise of putting the ball on the floor, finishing at the rim, scoring at all three levels, and rebounding with the best of them.

Entering this season, Markkanen’s goals at media day were to become a more physical and dominant player on both ends. He wanted to play all 82 games and he wanted to be known more as a leader throughout the locker room. Markkanen, being as reserved as he is, draws leader comparisons to Tim Duncan. Duncan set the example not with his words, but with his actions. He was a player that his team could look to during big moments. He would consistently deliver, and he would do it all with the exact same facial expression every time.

When the 2019-20 NBA season began, Lauri Markkanen had the best game of his career in game one against the Charlotte Hornets. He displayed all of the traits Bulls fans had been looking to see from him since evaluating the first two years of his career. His shot wasn’t dropping that night, but he found other ways to score. Markkanen ended that game with a career-high in points with 35, and a game-high in rebounds with 17. Truly impressive stuff.

Since that game, however, Markkanen struggled — badly. He was missing jumpers, failing to execute at the rim, rarely rebounding the ball, and looked more and more sluggish as the season progressed. Lauri Markkanen just did not look like the same player that we saw during the first game of this season, or in fact the first two years of his career. As the season progressed, Markkanen continued to struggle. He shot 21.2% from three in October and 31.1% in November. Those are pretty gruesome numbers for somebody considered by many as a stretch big.

One key problem with Markkanen this season was how passive he looked in a half-court set. He had multiple games during the month of November where he took under ten shots a game and would tend to become non-existent in games as they progressed. When asked earlier about his tendency to shy away in key moments for the Bulls, Markkanen said “I just try to make the right basketball play. I know I can be more aggressive at times. But I wouldn’t call it too unselfish.”

While his poor play is inexcusable, it’s fair to say factors such as dealing with multiple injuries, an inconsistent role in Jim Boylen’s offense, and struggling to mesh with teammates such as Zach LaVine made it harder for Markkanen to find consistency on this Chicago Bulls team.

However, we already know it — but I’m going to reiterate it again. For the Bulls to succeed, Lauri Markkanen has to deliver. Markkanen is a key piece of the Bulls’ rebuild, and he was primed for a huge third season. Sure, he didn’t meet or exceed his set expectations, but Markkanen still has time to pull through in season four.

Let’s break down some of the things Markkanen has to do in order to take a huge leap next year.

Firstly, Markkanen has to come into next season with a dominant approach to the game. Often at times, Markkanen tends to come into games with a more passive mindset when playing tougher opponents and that will often reflect in a box score.

He needs to possess the mentality which stars around the league such as Zach LaVine hold. This means firmly believing you’re the best player on the floor, never backing down from a challenge, and demanding the ball at all costs. Even if that means missing a shot or turning the ball over, the only way Lauri Markkanen is going to improve his offensive game is simply by getting the ball. When he makes a shot, he must call for the ball the next possession. If Zach LaVine can take a heat check three after literally one make, why can’t Markkanen?

While possessing what is widely known as the “Mamba Mentality” is a great start to get more out of Markkanen next season, there are some other on-court concerns that Lauri Markkanen must address in order for him to have a huge season four.

Simply put, Markkanen must become a better shooter. Throughout his first two seasons in the league, he’s been around league average from three at 36.2% and 36.1%. This season, however, he saw a decline from beyond the arc. Those numbers decreased into a disappointing 34.4% on 6.3 attempts per game. That just doesn’t cut it. To put that number into context, Markkanen is shooting similarly to players such as Marcus Smart, LeBron James, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Andrew Wiggins, all of whom aren’t generally regarded as good NBA shooters.

If Markkanen wants to be recognized as an offensive star, he must become a very good shooter. He doesn’t possess many elite offensive traits right now, and one that seems the most realistic of any is for him to become a great shooter. He shot over 40% from three in college and has shown flashes of excelling at the NBA level, but it just isn’t consistent yet. He has one of the best strokes in the league, yet somehow the percentages say the opposite.

Factoring in that Markkanen will never be a great defender in the league, the only chance of him being a star in this league is by being a great offensive player. Aside from becoming a more consistent shooter, Markkanen must improve at finishing at the rim. Throughout the first three years in the league, Lauri has been around 62% at the rim. For a power forward, those numbers are not acceptable at all.

All-Star Pascal Siakam is around 70% at the rim throughout his career, Kristaps Porzingis is at 67%, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is close to 74%. Not saying Markkanen will ever reach the latter, as those are elite numbers, but he must be more consistent at the rim.

In order for Markkanen to become better at the rim, he must have more moves in his arsenal. Aside from the ‘drag step’ which we saw very little of this year, Lauri doesn’t really have any tools or explosive moves that help him finish through contact. He struggles to get foul calls in the first place, and avoiding contact doesn’t help the plea to get to the line more. Markkanen is a very good free-throw shooter, and if he can break out more effective moves to get to the rim, chances are we see his free-throw numbers take a huge leap.

Another way Markkanen is going to improve at the rim is by taking advantage of smaller matchups. Whether that be Trae Young at 6-foot-1 or Jae Crowder at 6-foot-6, Markkanen is much bigger than them being seven feet tall. Going back to that ‘killer mentality’ point previously mentioned, Lauri must demand the ball when he has smaller defenders on him. It’s more about him not being vocal enough rather than the Bulls struggling to actually get him the ball.

This doesn’t mean he has to get exactly to the rim when matched up with a smaller defender. Lauri Markkanen has a really good face-up game from the mid-post, and that has been poorly utilized by the Bulls for the last two years. He has the ability to shoot over smaller players, and that’s something whoever is coaching the Bulls next season must recognize in order to make Markkanen most effective. He has to play to his size and understand he is seven feet tall, not six feet. The sooner Markkanen realizes this, the sooner he becomes a much better offensive player.

As mentioned earlier, Lauri will most likely never be a great defender in the NBA. However, one area of that end he can be very good at is as a defensive rebounder. Markkanen’s rebound per game numbers went from 7.5 in his rookie season to 9.0 in his second season to 6.3 in his third season. Markkanen crashing the boards helps his game in so many areas. He is dynamite in transition for a big guy, and it’s often a massive confidence booster for him when he takes it coast-to-coast and finishes on the other end.

Aside from these aforementioned areas in which Markkanen needs to improve to have an impressive next season, the biggest one which I haven’t listed yet is for him to just play. Presuming the Bulls and Markkanen do not agree on a contract extension this summer, Markkanen will be a restricted free agent in 2021 and will be playing for a contract. In order for him to get that shiny new deal, he just needs to be able to stay on the court, play as many games as possible, maintain consistency in his production, and ultimately take a huge leap in order to make the Bulls a better team.

As they say in the Drew League, no excuse – just produce. That same line goes for Lauri Markkanen for whenever the NBA returns to action.

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