Having been taken 7th overall in the 2017 draft, many had questions if Lauri Markkanen was worth being taken so early. If he can do more offensively than just shoot three-pointers, and if he could even be an ok defender. It wasn’t so much pessimism surrounding the Markkanen pick, it was just a lot of mystery about his overall game given he was only 19 years old.
But after his fantastic first season in the NBA, it’s safe to say the pick is looking pretty good.
Despite missing some time with a back injury and going through some games where he barely touched the ball, he still put up quality numbers. Markkanen averaged 15.2 points per game on an eFG% of 51.8 and shot 36.2% from three this season. His PPG average was good enough for 4th highest among rookies and he was 3rd in terms of total 3-pointers made. Markkanen even got to represent Team World at the NBA All-Star game and made the final of the Taco Bell Skills Challenge.
While the percentages don’t look the best right now, you have to keep mind that Markkanen will only get better when it comes to shooting from three. As we saw this season, when he gets going from deep he becomes a real problem for opposing defenses. Another positive sign was that Markkanen didn’t really lose confidence in his abilities: he had a 3-point attempt rate of 46.5%. With nearly half of his shots coming from behind the arc, it’s clear Markkanen knows where his strengths are on the court and where he can make an offensive impact the most, and not trying to force things or play outside of his role too much.
He also benefited from the Bulls being able to run some plays to get him open. Along with the patented dribble-handoff to begin most possessions, Chicago was able to run Markkanen off screens at times to create separation along with using him as a threat as the roll man in the Screen-and-Roll.
In fact, having Markkanen as the screener turned out to be very impactful for Chicago. He was third highest on the team in Screen-and-Roll possessions per game at 1.8 and recorded a points per possession average of 1.08. By using Markkanen as a roll man, Chicago was able to create mismatches by having him match up against either smaller guards or take advantage of big men being too slow to switch back in time.
(2:44 -2:52) Sometimes Chicago just doesn’t run a simple pick and roll with Markkanen. There are some plays in which Lauri is the main screener and then receives a screen himself. It’s not a simple pick and roll switch to get him open but it creates matchup problems nonetheless. It forces the defense to switch one extra time while still having to keep an eye on him. On this play, the Bulls used both Markkanen and Nikola Mirotic to set up an open shot for the Finn.
The sequence begins with Kris Dunn being guarded by Jose Calderon, Markkanen by Jae Crowder, and Mirotic by Kevin Love. To start off, Markkanen sets a screen for Dunn on Calderon’s right hand side. This causes a switch between Crowder and Calderon with the former stepping up to Dunn, who moved to his left when the screen arrived. As soon as Dunn goes past him, Markkanen sprints towards the other side of the court. Calderon initially tries to go under the Markkanen screen and go back to Dunn but when he sees Crowder switch, he takes a step back towards getting back to Lauri. But then he is met by a Mirotic screen, which forces another switch for the Cavs and now makes Love responsible for Markkanen. However, Love was too deep in the paint when Mirotic set the screen, leaving a huge gap of space for him to make up. By the time Love gets there, it was too late and Markkanen was in perfect rhythm as he caught the ball, set his feet, and splashed down a three-pointer in crunch time.
Along with his three-point shooting, Markkanen showed some promise skills when putting the ball on the floor. Numerous times we have seen Markkanen run in the open court with grace and make tough shots near the rim. He also has shown he can blow right by opponents if they come up to close on a close out. One play which comes to mind is in one of the last games of the season where Markkanen grabbed a rebound in his own half. He then proceeded to dribble it up, take a screen at the top of the three-point line and drill the shot.
Defense has been Markkanen’s obviously weaker side, but it doesn’t mean he didn’t at least show some ok skills. One thing which has been impressed this season he’s done when switched onto smaller players off defensive switches. In today’s NBA, if you aren’t a big who can be at least component when it comes to defending in space against guards, you are toast. He’s no lockdown defender but more often than not when Markkanen has to switch off a screen or pick, he is able to maintain his ground and position. This along with his length plays a big part of this and it helps him at least hold his own in those situations.
What he should work on
Keeping on the topic of defense, one thing which was evident from the first day we saw Markkanen was he needs to get stronger. Despite being a 7 footer, Markkanen has a very lean frame and the lack of strength hurt him as some opponents were able to play bully ball against him in the post and in the rebounding battle. Without the strength to box-out bigger defenders, there were times where Markkanen was overpowered and conceded the rebound. Thankfully for Lauri, teammate Robin Lopez is exceptional at boxing out and for most of the first half of the season Markkanen was able to grab boards at an easier pace.
With Markkanen reportedly playing only four games for Team Finland this summer, he will have a lot of time to bulk up and improve his core strength. This will really help him have a much easier time absorbing the contact from players driving into him which will decrease his chances of just straight up fouling on the shot.
Back to his calling card, offense, where one he could start doing more is playmaking. Next season Markkanen is going to see a lot of different defense from opposing teams, including more double-teams, and he won’t be sneaking up on anyone any more. Markkanen will have to adjust to be come more of a provider in these situations and take what the defenses give him.
But there will be other times where he should absolutely demand the ball. We saw plays last year where it looked like every other Bulls player simply just forgot Markkanen was on the court. It looked really bad when it was maximized in crunch time. There was a certain play against the Atlanta Hawks earlier in the season when Markkanen slipped out to the three-point line after setting a screen for Jerian Grant. Markkanen was wide open and had nobody even close to him but Grant didn’t pass it to him and instead took a contested shot. It was a frustrating sequence to watch and something which shouldn’t happen again. Part of the solution is for Markkanen to become more aggressive when it comes to getting the ball in crunch time. He has shown he can put the ball on the floor and create his own shot from there. Doesn’t matter if it’s a slick drive to the hoop or a crafty pull up jumper going to his left, Markkanen has special offensive skills for a guy his size and he makes a very strong case for being the guy in crunch time.
To be quite honest, I did not expect Lauri Markkenen to be this good. He’s far surpassed expectations in his rookie year and has proven himself to be a cornerstone in the Bulls rebuilding efforts. Chicago needed to hit on their first pick after the Jimmy Butler deal and it seems they have. Markkanen has shown great versatility offensively, showing skills which are rare for a teenager. His offensive ceiling is yet to be determined and it’s looking like a safe bet he will at least be a high end starter.
With the another year of rebuilding likely going to take place next season, Markkanen’s development will be another key talking point and something to monitor. Based on how this past season has gone, the sky is the limit for him in terms of how good he can be.