There were legitimate reasons to doubt Lauri Markkanen when the Bulls selected him with the No. 7 pick in June’s draft in the immediate aftermath of the Jimmy Butler trade.
From the Bulls’ perspective, it had been a long time since they hit on a draft pick. Marquis Teague, Tony Snell and Doug McDermott were abject busts in Chicago; Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis had yet to inspire much confidence, either. You had to go back to 2011 for the Bulls’ last true draft hit, when they selected Butler and Nikola Mirotic in the first round. That was back when the Bulls were the best team in the East, Derrick Rose was reigning MVP and Tom Thibodeau seemed to poised to become this city’s very own Basketball Ditka.
It felt like a million years ago.
The Bulls didn’t even bring Markkanen in for a workout. Everyone knew he could shoot coming out of Arizona, but there were serious questions after that. Could he rebound? Would he be able protect the rim as a center or defend the oversized wings on the perimeter who now man the four spot? Was there any diversity to his offensive game or was he simply a 7-foot McDermott?
Just 45 games into his NBA career, Markkanen has answered every question. He’s shown an impressive amount of athletic grace for a 7-footer. He’s competing defensively and holding his own on the glass. He won’t just be a great shooter — he’ll be a great scorer.
Lauri Markkanen is a stud. Whether the Bulls knew it or not, they found their next franchise cornerstone from the moment they traded Butler.
He’s dunking all over people
A quick moment of silence for Enes Kanter. He died doing what he loved: getting crammed on by big Finnish boys.
Knicks feed of the Lauri Markkanen dunk pic.twitter.com/yHAOcbzGs8— ⓂarcusD (@_MarcusD2_) January 11, 2018
Fred Hoiberg said this dunk almost made him pass out, but he should probably get used to it: Markkanen has been dunking on motherfuckers all season.
Markkanen had six dunks in the first three quarters against the Hawks last week. I liked this one, where he makes a great baseline cut timed to Jerian Grant’s drive to the basket and finishes strong with two hands in traffic:
Lauri Markkanen continuing his assault on the rim tonight. This is his sixth dunk in three quarters: pic.twitter.com/bqlGUPTs02— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) January 20, 2018
He’s not just finishing through traffic, he’s finishing over traffic. The man has a penchant for putback slams that is downright startling. Just ask the Pacers:
Lauri Markkanen flies in for the putback dunk pic.twitter.com/6yEHMOHfS6— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) December 30, 2017
Or the Mavericks:
Lauri Markkanen throws down the clutch putback slam!#NBA #AGS pic.twitter.com/uHdUtnvRxH— ALL GRIND SPORTS (@allgrindsports) January 6, 2018
This is a 7-footer doing under-the-legs dunks off self alley-oops and 360 windmills in warmups. That is not normal. He’s already dunked 38 times this season. There is some certified bounce to Markkanen’s game that we did not know existed.
He can create his own shot off the dribble
Markkanen was primarily a catch-and-shoot threat at Arizona. I was worried his offensive value would be largely tied to the Bulls’ point guard play, which was a major question mark coming into the season.
That has not been the case. Markkanen is already advanced at putting the ball on the floor and creating his own look. He can get to the rim, he can hit you with the pull-up or the step-back.
I've been so impressed with Lauri Markkanen's ability to put the ball on the floor and create his own shot. Some of his best moments recently: pic.twitter.com/LKq1HuxJlE— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) December 22, 2017
This is just sick for a 7-foot rookie:
Markkanen activating Steph Curry cheat code mode pic.twitter.com/LYB7uHWNQa— Stephen Noh (@StephNoh) January 2, 2018
It felt like it would take years for Markkanen’s floor game to get this good. Turns out he’s already there.
He’s going to be one of the great front court shooters in NBA history
Here, enjoy a 17-minute video of Lauri Markkanen ripping threes:
#BullsNation rook Lauri Markkanen becomes the fastest rookie to 100 made threes (41 games)! https://t.co/6jJxKbh3zl— NBA (@NBA) January 16, 2018
The statement in the subhead here might feel like hyperbole given Markkanen’s numbers thus far. He’s shooting 36 percent from three on 6.4 attempts per game. Good numbers, to be sure, but not exactly historic. Still, I feel confident in it.
Even great shooters take some time to adjust to the NBA three-point line as rookies. Dirk Nowitzki hit 20.6 percent of his threes as a rookie. He hit 38 percent the next year, 39 percent in his third year and 40 percent in his fourth year. Kristaps Porzingis has gone from 33 percent to 35 percent to 38 percent from deep in his three seasons in the league.
Markkanen is going to be a high-volume 40+ percent three-point shooter in this league for a long time. His stroke is so quick and so compact. There are not many players who can challenge it from a 7-footer. He’s going to be a historic shooter for a player his size.
His defense is way better than we thought
Markkanen is never going to be a natural rim protector. He’s never going to be a lockdown guy on the perimeter, either. But he’s already a sound defender with quick feet and good instincts.
He was all over the court defensively in the Bulls’ recent loss to the Pelicans. Here are two plays highlighted by Stephen Noh at The Athletic:
The biggest thing defensively for bigs in this era is being able to stick with guards off switches. Markkanen is quick enough to do it.
That was the most underrated thing from Markkanen’s most famous defensive highlight: spiking the ball off Stephen Curry’s face in a recent loss to the Warriors. Steph cooks the vast majority of the league’s 7-footers in this scenario. He could not shake Markkanen:
Lauri Markkanen blocked it right off Steph's face. pic.twitter.com/QVnIXIaG7X— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 18, 2018
The other key is help side defense off the ball. All young big men are going to make mistakes in that regard, but Markkanen isn’t totally lost by any stretch. He’s made good rotations and has a knack for challenging shots without fouling. These are all good signs.
When the Bulls drafted Markkanen, I said I would have preferred Malik Monk or Dennis Smith Jr. in that spot. I’ll admit: I was wrong. You can make a case for Markkanen against any player from the last draft, Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball and Donovan Mitchell included.
Watching Markkanen this season, it already feels like he’s undergone several years of development in just 45 games. He is 20 years old. His shooting is only going to get better, his floor game will only get more advanced and his frame will continue to fill out with muscle.
Markkanen will be an All-Star in this league. He’s a legitimate cornerstone. I still do not think the Bulls won the Jimmy Butler trade, because Jimmy Butler is essentially an MVP caliber player. But I know that Markkanen’s presence makes it a lot easier to stomach.
The Bulls have a gem in Lauri Markkanen. This is just the start.