Decimated with injuries, the Bulls are in serious need of reinforcements.
Thankfully, key pieces of the emerging young core are beginning to return to full health, with news surfacing that forward Lauri Markkanen is close to a return, perhaps as soon as next week.
Without arguably their best player all season, excitement now builds for Markkanen’s return to the lineup. In his first year in the league, Markkanen exceeded all reasonable expectations placed upon him, averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds. Building on from a surprising rookie season, it is assumed Markkanen will continue to improve at a better-than-expected rate.
While that is certainly a possible outcome, the more plausible scenario may be stagnated development. Here are few reasons why expectations should be tempered early on.
Integration into the team
Given the amount of injuries that have struck the Bulls it’s easy to forget the actual on-court concerns that existed heading into season. Due to Zach LaVine missing most of last season, the trio of Markkanen, LaVine and Kris Dunn only shared 255 minutes together. The results weren’t good — as a three-man unit, the Bulls were outscored by 20.6 points per 100 possessions. More importantly, a clear divide emerged within the offensive hierarchy upon LaVine’s return, with Markkanen finding himself with fewer shot attempts than before.
For this reason, year two of the rebuild was always going to be more important than the first. Thus far, the Bulls are yet to see the fruits of the Jimmy Butler trade on the floor together, and we’re still none the wiser about the legitimacy of this core moving forward.
What we do know, though, is LaVine has emerged into a legitimate offensive weapon. Out of necessity, LaVine has become the focal point of a Bulls offense severely lacking in additional playmakers. With so few on-ball threats on the roster, it’s hard to imagine LaVine’s usage and touches declining.
Markkanen is unlikely to surpass LaVine as the leader of the offense, but his shooting guard isn’t the only one who threatens to steal some of the limelight away from the sophomore big.
As they typically do, the Bulls have built a frontcourt with four players plausibly worthy of 20 or minutes a night. Two of those players, Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker, are effectively using the remainder of the season to audition for new contracts. Both Portis and Parker are in direct minutes competition with Markkanen, and both will be keen to prove their worth, likely in the form of shot attempts and made baskets.
Expect Portis and Parker to come off the bench. Still, there will be occasions where coach Fred Holberg leans on rotations that feature both his reserve bigs along with Markkanen and LaVine. What then?
It will be up to the coaches and those players around Markkanen to ensure he is still featured within the flow of the offense. But it’s hard to make up for lost time. Patterns have been established, habits have been formed. Breaking those may be harder than it should, particularly early.
Finding a shooting rhythm will take time
Rarely do injuries bring with them many positives. In this case, though Markkanen missed crucial time to form a cohesive bond with his teammates, the silver lining in all this is the injury won’t detract from the forwards career.
While a sprained elbow has sidelined Markkanen for over two months, it hasn’t prevented him from maintaining his aerobic conditioning. Upon his return, Markkanen should be close to peak health. That is the silver lining in all of this. On the down side, however, for a player who’s game is primarily built on his ability to face up and shoot, an injury to a dominant arm is less than ideal.
As he assimilates back into the league, Markkanen’s timing will be off. That would’ve been the case for any ailment, sprained elbow or otherwise. Adjusting to the speed of the game will be necessary, but there’s no denying it will be a task made more difficult as his arm and shot rehabilitates.
It’s highly unlikely that Markkanen’s shooting mechanics have changed or been affected long-term. Unfortunately, there’s no way to make up for lost time. Markkanen will need to iron out the kinks of his most potent weapon through in-game repetitions. His shot and form will come good, but it will take time, and it may affect his performance early on.
Second season blues
Markkanen was so good, so soon, that he quickly became the central figure to the entire rebuild. Expectations are high, and as good as he may eventually be, it’s important to remember that development isn’t always linear. Look no further than his fellow draftees.
Finishing as the top three in last season’s Rookie of the Year race, many assumed Philadelphia guard Ben Simmons, Utah guard Donovan Mitchell, and Boston forward Jayson Tatum would continue their meteoric rise to stardom. For all three, that hasn’t happened.
Whether we assign their stalled development to a ’sophomore slump’ or something more measurable, there’s no denying these players have yet to make another leap. As defenses have worked out and loaded up on these young phenoms, is it unreasonable to suggest year two may be harder for Markkanen, too?
Where things may differ for the Bulls and Markkanen is expectations. Unlike the Celtics, Sixers and Jazz, the Bulls have zero pressure to reach and perform in the postseason. In that sense, Markkanen will have less of a burden to produce at a level that carries the Bulls up the standings. Still, progression is expected, and as his fellow draftees have shown, it’s not always guaranteed.