There was an interesting confluence of Lauri Markkanen columns in Wednesday morning’s internet, with differing takes on the 4th-year (!) lottery pick’s inconsistent and possibly stagnated career thus far.
The more patient end came from ESPN’s Zach Lowe, who featured Markkanen alongside Wendell Carter as one of his “most intriguing players for 2020-21”. I was going to say this was a more ‘positive’ take, but a lot of that positivity surrounds Carter. With Markkanen it’s very much more of a mixed bag.
There’s reference to what we all know as “the greatest month in NBA history for a middling player on a terrible team”, Lauri Markkanen’s much-ballyhooed February 2019. As you recall, a few weeks later Lauri was shut down after a strange ‘fatigue’ episode. Then his 2019-20 season had a great opening night and not much else as he limped towards the end of the year with another core injury. Curiously, Lowe cites it may have been a literal limp, saying Markkanen himself said “a left ankle injury hobbled him much of last season; played with a brace, and could not push off his left leg with power”
That’s a new one. And then Lowe went in on Lauri as a one-dimensional offensive player who isn’t even very good at that one dimension:
it is on Markkanen to prove he deserves more touches. It starts with living up to his billing as a shooter. He has hit 35.6% on 3s — average. He does not inspire enough frantic closeouts or extra rotations that leave the defense naked elsewhere.
He has been almost unbelievably bad from midrange: 30% last season, never above 39% on long 2s. Among 260 players who attempted at least 300 shots last season, only 28 underperformed their expected effective field-goal percentage — based on the location of each shot and the nearest defender — by a larger margin than Markkanen, per Second Spectrum data.
Markkanen can beat defenders off the bounce only if they fear his jumper enough to press him. If they give any cushion, he dribbles into walls.
He has not been able to exploit guards on switches, a must for any screen-setter with his skill set. The Bulls have scored less than 0.85 points per possession in each of the past two seasons when Markkanen shoots out of the post or dishes to a teammate who fires — bottom-25 numbers leaguewide, per Second Spectrum.
Markkanen sometimes struggles to shove guards backward. His dribble can get high and loose — prey for swiping defenders
There’s hope that with health (?) and a new system will help. Lowe praised Jim Boylen for that February 2019 stretch where he “made Markkanen the centerpiece of unpredictable screening actions similar to ones the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves have used for Kevin Love”, but then last year Boylen “marginalized Markkanen into a role as standstill floor-spacer.” There’s a lot in the article about how potentially well Markkanen can work with Carter and how relatively little time they’ve played together so far in Carter’s career.
But what also caught my eye is Lowe citing the lack of development help the front office has provided in their first offseason:
Hovering over everything is Chicago’s lack of guard playmaking. Like most bigs, Markkanen and Carter need to catch the ball with some small advantage. They rely on guards to provide it by puncturing the defense, and kicking to them on target and on time.
Chicago’s lead ball handlers are scattershot, and the Bulls did not address the issue in the draft or free agency.
Chemistry on the pick-and-roll has come slowly. Chicago’s guards sometimes look off mismatches in the post to chase their own.
“It has been a work in progress getting on the same page with the guards,” Markkanen said.
It’s possible based on this failure in the offseason that perhaps the Bulls front office doesn’t actually care that much about the evaluation of Markkanen (and to a lesser extent, Carter).
Because not only did they not address guard play and add to the passing capability of the players around Markkanen, they may have drafted his replacement.
That’s what we read from The Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry today, based on Lauri’s stagnation followed by two preseason games where he was outplayed by rookie Patrick Williams. Mayberry included a pretty damning video of Lauri’s awful preseason so far, cited the same limitations Lowe did, and called for the ‘forward-thinking move’ of sending Lauri to the bench already:
Williams might already be the Bulls’ best perimeter defender. He would balance the starting five not only as a multi-positional defensive option but also as a secondary ballhandler and playmaker. Williams probably isn’t the shooter Markkanen is, but he’s revealed smooth, albeit slow, mechanics and made two of three 3-point tries Sunday. He has a workable shot that won’t leave him exposed, while White, LaVine and Porter serve as sharpshooters in the first string.
By moving Markkanen to the bench, the Bulls could prop up the second unit and possibly put him in a position to excel against reserves.
It’s also mentioned that looming over all of this is Lauri’s next contract, which can be extended by Monday or else he hits restricted free agency in the summer. Maybe benching him for a rookie (we all love them, don’t we folks) midway through the preseason would be a warning shot that he should take a discount now and risk his value falling even lower in a season looking poised to go nowhere. There may have been other warnings already given the team’s behavior in the offseason (Mayberry also mentions forgotten man Thad Young, who noticeably is still on the roster jamming up the PF rotation).
Both Markkanen and Karnisovas are saying all the right things when it comes to a long-term future with the team, but Lauri may not be getting all the the time he thinks is required.