Most of things that have caused the Bulls bumble through the first ten percent of this season should not come as a great surprise. Jim Boylen can’t manage a rotation. Zach LaVine can’t play team defense. Nobody can grab a damn rebound. But something nobody accounted for heading into the year was that Lauri Markkanen would struggle so much on the offensive end.
In fact, quite the opposite was expected of Markkanen entering his third season in the league. After a summer off from international competition and a healthy training camp, Markkanen entered the season in peak physical condition. He boasted during media day about adding muscle and how the additional strength would help to round out his game. Markkanen’s size and pure stroke made him an obvious choice for the Bulls in the 2017 draft, and everyone assumed after two tanktastic seasons that this would be the year Lauri asserted himself as a star on this young team.
Through eight games, Markkanen has failed to live up to the lofty expectations he carried into the season. He is struggling overall from the field, making just 37.6% of his field goal attempts. More concerning than the overall shooting percentage has been Lauri’s three point shooting. Markkanen, while not quite elite from three point ranged, converted a respectable 36% in each of his first two seasons on a high volume. So far this season, that number has plummeted to 26.5% on over six attempts per game.
Part of Markannen’s appeal is his ability to command the defenses attention no matter where he is on the court. A season ago, he converted an impressive 36% of his 291 above the break three point attempts, equaling the percentage he drained from the corners, where he only had 38 attempts.
This season, Markkanen has not matched the success he showed a season ago on longer threes, sinking a paltry 14% of his attempts from the wings.
Arguably more concerning than the cold three point shooting is Markkanen’s inability to finish shots inside, where the gains muscle have not translated to gains in the paint. Lauri has scored on only 56% of his shots inside of three feet this season, a shockingly low number for a player of his size. Lauri converted 67% his rookie year and 62% a season ago of his shots from this same range in his first two seasons. This is not a good number to see trending downward.
Lauri can throw down some impressive dunks when he’s been able to beat his man from the perimeter and pick up speed. But down on the block, Markkanen struggles to bump his defender off of his spot and finish inside shots.
His short wingspan for a seven footer makes life difficult in the post, even against smaller defenders.
Markkanen’s success inside is too reliant on leaning bankers that are rarely seen attempted in the NBA. It’s always pretty when it works, but these kind of shots are just too difficult to be able to knock down at a high rate.
What is so different this season that we can attribute Lauri’s decline in overall shooting to? Markkanen’s overall shot profile is generally healthy, and shows very little deviation from seasons prior. He’s taking a greater percentage of his shots from inside of ten feet and from three point range compared to last year, and is taking far fewer shots between 16 feet and the arc. 48% of his three point attempts have been off the catch, compared to just 38% a year ago. Half of his shots are characterized as “Open” or “Very Open” by NBA.com, which is only slightly down from the 53% of shots that received that same qualification in the 2018-19 campaign.
Could it be that Markkanen is feeling out a new teammates and adjusting to a new point guard? The case could be made, but that would involve buying the idea that Kris Dunn is a more capable point guard than Tomas Satoransky.
Is Markkanen being marginalized or misused in new assistant coach Chris Flemming’s offensive system? His usage is down a tick to 23% from 25%, and he’s turning the ball over on a career high 11% of possessions. But those numbers are balanced out by a spike in Lauri’s assist percentage from 7.2% to 10.3%. Markkanen has not registered a shot coming off of a screen so far this season according to NBA.com, but that was not a major part of his game a year ago where he attempted just one shot per game coming off picks and made only 30% of those attempts.
It just may be that, in this small early season sample, Markkanen is simply on a run of bad luck. Lauri shot 54.5% from the field Wednesday in Atlanta and drilled 4/7 of his three point attempts in his best game since an opening night explosion against the Hornets. Perhaps this outburst will signal a return to form for the Finnish forward.
But even if Markkanen goes on a hot streak over the next stretch of games, the Bulls cannot discount this cold start in evaluating his position as a core building block for the future. Lauri is never going to be an impact defender or somebody who can control the glass. He’s never going to operate as the fulcrum of an offense with major ball handling duties. For Markkanen to be part of a true contender, he’s going to have to grow into a 40% three point shooter. While his stroke is pure and his size allows him to get his shot off at anytime, the ball just has not gone in as much as it needs to for Lauri. To reach 40% this season, he’ll need to make his next ten attempts from deep. From there, he would need to demonstrate a level of consistent accuracy that he has not shown capable of thus far, and may never be able to in his career.