John Paxson can live life without labels this season if he wants, but every rational Bulls fan knows that this year is all about the development of its young core. The Bulls enter training camp with the second youngest team in the league, but clearly hope that some of the youngsters already on the roster grow into high caliber performers that will validate their draft positions.
They know that Kris Dunn can defend, Zach LaVine can fly, and Jabari Parker can get buckets. What they don’t know yet is how the skillsets of those three ball-dominant starters will mesh with the crown jewel of this rebuild, Lauri Markkanen.
The Rookie Stud
Markkanen, who capped off his stellar rookie season with an appearance on the All-Rookie 1st Team, needs to be put in a position to grow and expand his skillset. Everybody knows he’s a deadly shooter after he knocked down 36.2% of threes at a high volume of nearly six attempts per game last year. Markkanen takes full advantage of his height which, combined with his smooth and easy release, makes bothering his shot nearly impossible.
We know Markkanen is a powerful finisher inside. Lauri shot 67.6% on shots inside of three feet, which included an impressive 63 dunks on the season. Markkanen showed great strength and agility in the paint when he caught the ball on the move, and demonstrated that he’s not afraid to put the ball on the floor and attack a closeout.
The foundation of skills that Lauri showcased as a 20 year old lay the baseline for a long career. But to establish himself as an All-Star level player, somebody who can be more than a secondary option on a good team, Markkanen needs to expand his range on offense. The seven footer logged just 28 isolation possessions last season, and struggled with his efficiency in his limited attempts. Markkanen operated as a pick and roll ball handler 45 times and actually fared pretty well, but is overly reliant on his left hand and needs more opportunities to refine his craft and vision.
The trouble with the Bulls ‘Big’ ‘Three’
Last season, Markkanen’s usage rate was 21.7%, which is pretty strong for a big man who was rarely given the chance to create his own shot. In the 1078 minutes he shared the floor with Kris Dunn, that usage rate dipped slightly to 20.6%. But in the 420 minutes he played alongside Zach LaVine, Lauri finished just 17.2% of Bulls possessions. In the limited time he saw the court with both Dunn and LaVine, Markkanen’s usage rate sunk down to 15.8% (shoutout NBAWowy!).
Markkanen’s .18 free throw rate (FTr) last season was pretty impressive given his size and shot profile. Only four players last year 6’10 and taller posted a FTr higher than .16 and a three point attempt rate above .45. But in the minutes that Markkanen shared the court with Dunn and LaVine, his FTr dropped down to .12, half of what he averaged in the 745 minutes he played without either guard.
While Markkanen, Dunn, and LaVine played just 255 minutes together last season, the swing in Markkanen’s production is startling. Sharing the court with two players who need the ball in their hands reduced Markkanen to spot-up duty, away from the basket and disengaged from the offense.
Now they’ve added a Fourth
If the Bulls front office was committed to executing a proper rebuild, Paxson would have had no issue answering the “competitive vs. development” question. The goal of this season should be to see how far Markkanen’s talents can be stretched, and to give him the opportunity to experiment with different facets of his game. Unfortunately, the Bulls front office used this offseason to fill out the roster with players who will limit Markkanen’s development and put a cap on how good the young Finn can be.
The addition of Jabari Parker into the starting lineup this season will soak up possessions and further marginalize Markkanen’s role on offense. Parker, who’s best position is probably power forward, is meh at best from an efficiency standpoint, and probably feels empowered to take whatever shots he wants after receiving $20 million from the Bulls in July.
This roster is giving me scary “3 Alphas” vibes heading into training camp. Everyone remembers the horrible spacing and depressing locker room chemistry from that season, but what often gets forgotten is much of a lost year it was for the growth of Nikola Mirotic. Mirotic was older and further along in his development in that season than Markkanen will be this year. He’d shown himself to be a capable creator and creative finisher in his first two seasons in the NBA. But in the 2016-17 season, Mirotic was forced to turn himself into a pure spot-up shooter who slunk around the corners and was never able to find the cerebral qualities of his game that had Bulls fans so intrigued when he debuted with the team in 2014. His usage dipped, his assist rate fell three points from where it had been the year before, and his free throw rate cratered nearly 10%.
Markkanen will hopefully have an easier time of it than Mirotic did that season. For one, he’ll be playing with a better spaced floor than Mirotic ever had alongside Wade and Rondo. Parker and LaVine are capable three-point shooters who defenders cannot abandon when Lauri has the ball. But the concern heading into this season is not the clogged paint Lauri will have to navigate, but whether or not he’ll have a chance to navigate at all.