[ed. note: this was mostly written before Lauri sprained his ankle, and he’s doubtful for tonight. D’oh! -yfbb]
The first couple of months of the season could not have gone any worse for Lauri Markkanen.
Markkanen, along with Zach LaVine, was expected to be one of Chicago’s top offensive options. Given his quick and smooth jumper, Markkanen had shown the ability to stretch defenses. But this was supposed to be the year Markkanen lept into becoming more than just a solid spot-up shooter and add more to his game offensively.
But things haven’t gone exactly to plan for him or the Bulls, not only did Markkanen fail to show improvement he regressed significantly as a shooter. Although he had a spectacular game on opening night, his shooting numbers for October were 21.1 percent from three for a true shooting percentage of 49.8, well below the caliber which we have been used to seeing from him. November the shooting numbers from three got better but they were still around average: in the 15 games he played that month, Markkanen only hit more than five field-goal attempts in two games, and shot better than 40 percent from the field in only six of them. What made matters worse was Markkanen’s dip in usage. He only had a USG rating of 19.9 as there were times where he’d disappear offensively or Jim Boylen would simply just leave him on the bench.
With the Bulls starting the year with such an easy schedule, Markkanen’s shooting slump only exacerbated Chicago’s problems. He’s not an above-average defender, so when Markkanen’s shot isn’t falling he is a negative on the court.
But the switch seemed to have flipped last month.
Markkanen’s offensive rating leaped up to 118 with a 64.9 true shooting percentage. The biggest factor in Markkanen’s improvement was his three-point shooting, going 42 for 101 downtown (41.6 percent). He scored in double digits in all 14 games and shot more than 40 percent in 11 of them. Some performances stood out from the rest, like his 31 point performance versus the Wizards, and the double-double of 13 points and 17 rebounds against the Clippers that secured the Bulls only victory over an above-.500 team this season.
57 percent of Lauri’s total shots for December came from three, while it wasn’t a big increase from his three-point attempt rate in November, the main change was that he started knocking down these attempts. Like Stephen Noh pointed out, part of Markkanen’s struggles could have just been a case of bad luck.
While it’s nice to see Markkanen respond with a much better month of basketball, this type of play needs to continue. Markkanen’s play seemed to have taken the pressure a little bit off Zach LaVine. It also made looks easier for guys like Wendell Carter Jr. and Thad Young as defenses moved off of them. Everyone benefits when Markkanen is hitting his shots and spacing the floor. It should be a priority to develop Markkanen, and the starting point is getting his shotmaking back up to being his elite skill and starting to see elite production. And if the Bulls want to be competitive this season and beyond, Markkanen needs to be at least take back some of the scoring load where it’s not just the LaVine show.
Part of this renaissance is also Boylen believing more in Markkanen. Although he averaged just two more minutes than in November, Markkanen was starting to play in crunch time scenarios more often. While that is a weird thing to say for a player thought to be a huge part of the Bulls core, Boylen would leave Markkanen on the bench late into the fourth quarter early on in the season.
Of course, December as a stretch of games is a very arbitrary and small sample size. There are still four months left of the season. Lauri Markkanen has looked awful, then much better in the final months of 2019, let’s hope it is a steady upward trend in 2020.