Entering the 2017-18 NBA season, one of the most popular conversations around the league was regarding the incredible crop of incoming rookies and which ones would be award winners. Of course, many people believed that Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, or Lonzo Ball would be the first of this year’s rookie class to take the NBA by storm and dominate early. So far, Simmons has lived up to the hype, while the other two have had their fair share of struggles. However, one somewhat surprising name has emerged with flashes of excellence and star-power: the Chicago Bulls‘ Lauri Markannen.
Markkanen, arguably already the best player on his team, has jumped into NBA action almost exactly as advertised. The lanky 7-footer is diverse on the offensive end, with a silky touch from beyond the arc and a variety of post moves under the rim. On the season, he’s averaging 15.8 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 43.5-percent from the floor and 38.1-percent from the three-point line. Markannen is second in the league among rookies in scoring and rebounding, behind only Simmons in both categories.
He’s tall. He can shoot. Most importantly, he’s European. Naturally, the comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis were always going to be present. But now, Markkanen is earning these comparisons with his play and not his physical make-up. He can even knock down the patented Dirk step-back.
Lauri Markannen isn’t perfect — no rookie is. Making the leap from college to the pros, many believed his two biggest weaknesses would be his rebounding and his defense, and why wouldn’t it be? Like many other rookie big men in recent years, Markannen is just 20-years-old and still mastering how to maneuver his body around players much bigger and stronger than him. With 8.2 rebounds per game, he’s proven that he can work the boards, and that number should only improve.
Perhaps more surprisingly, his defense has actually been decent. Again, as a rookie, adjusting to the NBA game on the defensive end seems impossible, but Markannen has held his own with the big boys so far. As expected, there are mistakes. He’ll occasionally get lost on switches, a stronger big man can back him down to the rim with relative ease, and his lateral quickness certainly isn’t the best. However, he never stops moving. He’s always trying to interrupt passing lanes and make the smart switches, even if it doesn’t always work. He won’t be earning any All-Defense honors anytime soon, but there’s absolutely potential for him to be an above-average defender.
As for his offense, Markannen is diverse but has plenty of room to improve. It seems like consistency will be a constant speed bump for the 7-foot rookie, who recently scored just 14 points on 5/16 shooting (2/11 from three-point land). One of the most valuable skills any athlete can have is the ability to not get stuck in a cold streak. Very few can do it. Markannen may never figure this out, and that’s not an issue, but he has to find a way to be more consistent on offense, particularly with his shooting.
Even as a big man who can score inside and out, Markannen should develop some mid-range action in his repertoire. From anywhere between 3-16 feet away from the rim, he’s just 5/16 all season. Comparatively, he’s 17/28 within three feet of the rim, and 22/58 from three. These shooting splits are definitely interesting for a 7-footer. For some reference, here are the shooting splits for Porzingis this season:
Within three feet: 30/44 (68.2%)
Mid-range: 61/121 (50.4%)
Three-point: 19/50 (38%)
This trend for Markannen is directly correlated with the next area of improvement he needs: the ability to create his own shot. Yes, he can score in the paint well and can hit a Dirk-like step-back, but overall his shot creating isn’t ideal. Over 77-percent of his field goals have been assisted by his teammates, and just one of his 22 three-pointers have been unassisted. Three-point attempts will always have a higher assist rate, especially with a player like Markannen, but his game would reach new levels with the ability to create more shots for himself.
Markannen’s emergence as a potential Rookie of the Year candidate has been partially credited to Bobby Portis busting up Nikola Mirotic in practice prior to the start of the regular season. The team suspended Portis for eight games (he returned on Tuesday, posting 21 points and 13 rebounds in his season debut) and Mirotic is still out with several facial fractures. Down two big men, this allowed the Bulls to run Markannen 32.9 minutes per game prior to Portis’ return. The rookie has definitely accomplished enough in his opportunity to continue getting similar playing time all year, even with Portis back in action.
The Chicago Bulls are just bad overall and weren’t expected to win many games this year anyway. It’s the perfect place for Lauri Markannen to get the most usage and continue to develop his game. He may not be a household name like Ben Simmons or Lonzo Ball, but his play speaks for itself. With Markkanen showing star potential, it makes the Jimmy Butler trade look a little bit better from the Windy City’s perspective. As he continues to grow and develop, his entire game will improve. Not to mention, with a nickname as cool as “The Finnisher,” how can Markannen not be a star in the making?