There are few traits more tantalizing in an NBA player than a 7-foot forward boasting a pure shooting ability from distance.
Fortunately for the Bulls, they have that player in Lauri Markkanen. In his sophomore season coming off a major injury he’s still managing to connect on 39.5 percent of his threes this season. With Steph Curry the the only player who attempts more catch-and-shoot threes per game, Markkanen has already proven himself as floor-spacing force.
But to make the leap beyond being as a designated shooter, the next step in Markkanen’s development is to break through as a more complete scoring option.
As of now, while his basic box score numbers have risen, Markkanen remains a player who’s heavily reliant on others to create scoring opportunities for him — 71.8 percent of his baskets this season have been assisted.
While Markkanen excels at finishing plays which have been created for him, he struggles to do so when tasked into initiating points for himself. This reality was reinforced in a 104-101 loss to the Cavaliers.
Matched up against Cedi Osman, a 6-foot-8, 215 lbs forward undersized at the four, this should’ve been a favourable matchup for Markkanen. On several occasions, though, he was unable to body up and run through his smaller opponent.
As an example, take a look at this drive. Though he was able to score here, it took a double-clutched runner to get a shot off against Osman.
Later in the game, on a near identical play against the same defender, Markkanen was unable to create the necessary separation to get a clean look at the basket.
The result: another runner which the Bulls forward was forced into clutching the ball late before releasing the shot as he fell toward the floor.
It’s rare to see such a large offensive player act so small against mismatches. This, however, is a common occurrence for Markkanen.
Granted, very few 7-footers typically can bounce past a more nimble defender, but where concern should exist is on plays where Markkanen fails to bypass slow, lumbering centers.
That result is exemplified on this possession in a close loss to the L.A. Clippers. Isolated on the baseline against veteran center Marcin Gortat, Markkanen chose to dribble back into the paint. Doing little with the ball to shake free of his matchup, Markkanen again is forced into releasing his shot at its lowest apex point.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Markkanen has little creativity when attempting to produce points off the dribble. In the post, too, he’s had little success.
So far this season, Markkanen is shooting 36.8 percent on 2.3 post touches per game. Comparing those figures to Jabari Parker, who shoots 52.9 percent on an equivalent numbers of post attempts, Markkanen falls well short of his less revered teammate.
Part of his struggles in the post is where he’s receiving the ball. Here against Osman, Markkanen needs to be more fierce in sealing and establishing deeper position. Instead, he begins backing down Osman too far out, resulting in a tougher than necessary shot attempt.
Learning when and how to establish strong post position is a technique issue that can be solved in time. However, as was the case in his driving attempts, Markkanen created little separation off Osman, who was there to contest an already inefficient shot.
Back to the Clippers game, this time matched up against Patrick Beverley in the post. Again, Markkanen starts his post-up out too high, gifting his opponent too much space between ball and basket. While he’s able to dribble and spin into a strong position, Markkanen doesn’t do enough to muscle his smaller defender away from his body. Here blocked by a point guard, how can we reliably expect him to compete with bigger and more athletic forwards and centers?
And this is the part where we remind ourselves that trying to manufacture an offensive advantage within Jim Boylen’s slow, halfcourt offense is a difficult task even for a seasoned scorer.
Boylen is largely responsible for Markkanen’s offensive stagnation, as Stephen Noh of The Athletic wisely articulated. While the coach has unnecessarily made life more difficult for his players — and those watching the games — Markkanen too must partially own a stake in his stunted growth.
As a forward with little more than average strength and athleticism, mature NBA bodies won’t be flummoxed by Markkanen’s presence. Hitting the weight room and filling out his lean frame is imperative if Markkanen is to reach the next level. Until he develops more strength through his shoulders, core and legs, he won’t be able to operate effectively in the post.
He also must improve his guile around the basket. Rather than straight line drives that feature several hard dribbles before firing up a predictably difficult shot, Markkanen needs to introduce some variety into his game. Creating separation with a hesitation move or a Euro step, these are the types of variations that can buy enough time and space to get off a clean shot.
All of this needs to happen before we can consider Markkanen a prospect worthy of being the focal point of the offense. It’s possible it occurs. But until he hints at progressing toward being a more complete offensive player, he should remain as a secondary option best suited at exploiting defenses as a shooting option within a dynamic, uptempo offense.