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Lauri Markkanen’s defense still a work in progress, but not bad at all

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The rookie showed some poor defense late against the New Orleans Pelicans

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Chicago Bulls Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Lauri Markkanen has been one of the lone bright spots in this current Chicago Bulls season, already making draft prognosticators re-think their evaluation of him. His offensive contribution has been huge for a team struggling on that end, and the reliance on him is impressive especially for a 20 year old.

And his defense, and especially defensive rebounding, have been better than advertised as well. All that said, against the New Orleans Pelicans, Markkanen made some crucial mistakes which led to easy baskets for his opponents. And some learning opportunities...

In this situation, the Pelicans started out with a simple pick and roll between Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday which forced Markkanen and Justin Holiday to switch. Markkanen got beat on the drive by and let Holiday get into the paint, forcing Denzel Valentine to show help defense in the paint. That leaves Valentine’s man, E’Twaun Moore, open in the left corner. Valentine makes a pretty good recovery but by the time he gets there, Moore is about to swing the ball to a wide open DeMarcus Cousins. Robin Lopez was originally guarding Cousins but came in for help defense as well when Holiday drove by Markkanen. At his foot speed Lopez isn’t able to track back to his man in time and it’s an easy three-pointer for Boogie.

This play starts with both Davis and Cousins heading up to the three-point line looking to set a screen for Jrue Holiday. Markkanen was guarding Davis and seemed ready to switch once the pick was set. But Holiday had other ideas and decided to use Cousins as the screen man, going to the opposite of Markkanen and Davis. After the screen, Cousins decides to pop out near the three-point line, forcing Justin Holiday and Lopez to switch. The real problem occurred away from the ball. As Cousins was going to the three-point line Davis was doing the opposite and rolling to the basket. What Markkanen should have done was stick with Davis as he heading to the hoop but instead he decided to offer help defense on Cousins. He got confused by the fake screen and it allowed an easy alley-oop for Davis from Holiday.

It was a rough showing against New Orleans but this is something Markkanen can learn from. In fact, he’s been pretty good on defense this year and has shown flashes of being a capable defender in the NBA.

(0:22-0:34) Here is a play where Markkanen does a fantastic job of being aggressive on defense while also recovering very well. The journey for Markkanen starts at the top of the three-point line where he is guarding Kevin Love. Markkanen does a good job trapping Dwyane Wade off of a pick set by Love. He’s able to stop Wade in his tracks and push him back to near the half court line. But Markkanen’s work doesn’t stop there. He has to go back to Love, who already move to the opposite side of the court near the block. By the time he gets there, Love has the ball and forces Markkenen to get back to work immediately. Markkanen does well in forcing Love to go baseline and nearly forces him to go out of bounds. He then does a good job of making Love take a tough hook shot, which doesn’t go in, and completes a great defensive sequence for the rookie.

It’s not just Markkanen who is alone playing well defensively. The entire team has been putting in a solid effort on that side of the court. It’s not something you often see with a young team, a comment which was also noticed by Stephen Noh of the Athletic:

These are vital stepping stones to ultimately building a contender. The Bulls don't have the talent yet to score, but it usually takes years before a young team's defense catches up with its offense. They have a massive head start in this regard over typical rebuilds, and that's a nod to the great work of the coaching staff.

Defense was something which was a concern for Markkanen when he was drafted. He needs to get stronger in order to guard with some of the top forwards in the NBA. There will be times where he’s going to get completely lost and it will be bad. Yet overall he’s been decent so far and is making strides defensively. If Markkanen is able to keep improving on defense, it will improve his ceiling in terms of what player he can be.