Bulls Season Rewind 18-19: Lauri Markkanen
Second-year big man Lauri Markkanen is extremely popular amongst Bulls fans, and it's easy to see why. Few NBA players of any age possess his combination of shooting, size, athleticism and basketball smarts, and in just two seasons with the team he has blown through many expectations without looking back. After an All-Rookie first team campaign, expectations were high for the 7-footer out of Finland, and it's safe to say Lauri continues to develop into a potential star player for the Bulls.
Unfortunately, Lauri's 2018-19 season hit a snag right out of the gate, as an elbow injury suffered in the opening days of training camp caused him to miss the opening 23 games of the season. His presence was greatly missed on the court, and Bulls fans and teammates alike were extremely pleased to see him make his on-court debut on December 1 in Houston.
After working his way back into form, Lauri continued to develop as the team's leader and one of their go-to players. In his top 6 scoring games of the season, the Bulls went 6-0 – meaning that Lauri going supernova scoring usually resulted in a Bulls win. He had big moments as well – a last second basket to beat the Thunder in Coach Jim Boylen's home debut, complete games where he was dominant offensively, moments where he put the team on his back. Though he missed the final stretch of the season due to extreme fatigue, the Bulls have an exceptional talent in Markkanen, and at just 21 years old, a bright future as he continues to develop.
Let's take a look at some of Lauri's best performances this season:
February 23, vs Celtics (Bulls 126, Boston 116)
Markkanen Stat Line: 35 points (12-20 FG), 3-7 3PT, 8-9 FT, 15 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal
This game just meant a little more, and Markkanen played like it. He grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds (the highest Boston rebounder had just 6) and was nearly unstoppable offensively, scoring from all over the court and getting to the free throw line at will en route to a career-high 35 points on the night. After the Celtics had walloped the Bulls on their home court two months earlier, this win against a full-strength Boston team was just that much sweeter.
February 8, at Nets (Bulls 125, Nets 106)
Markkanen Stat Line: 31 points (11-18 FG), 4-7 3PT, 5-6 FT, 18 rebounds, 2 blocks
What a stat line. The story of this game was the debut of new small forward Otto Porter, who came over in a trade two days earlier for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker. Porter was a natural fit right off the bat, and having an experienced NBA starter next to him at the small forward position opened Lauri's game up to a monster night and a win on the road against the Nets. This was Lauri's third consecutive 30-point game, his best stretch of the season, and he was a force from any angle: spotting up, driving, and in transition. Markkanen repeatedly grabbed rebounds and brought the ball up himself, igniting the offense and showing an awareness beyond his years.
"He's smart; he knows if he rebounds it gets him into the game, so he's trying to get every rebound he can," Coach Boylen said about Markkanen after the win. "He's settling less, he's driving the ball more. I thought his aggressiveness is encouraging. When you get lost in the other parts of the game beside scoring, defense, rebounding, making the correct play, setting a good screen, I think it all comes back to you and I think it's all coming back to him."
March 1, at Atlanta (Bulls 168, Hawks 161 4OT)
Markkanen Stat Line: 31 points (9-18 FG), 3-6 3PT, 10-12 FT, 17 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block
That score is still unbelievable. This wasn't Lauri's most efficient game, but it has to be mentioned given just how hard he played and fought to get this win. Logging a career-high 54 minutes, the big man left it all out on the floor in an epic four overtime game that went into the record books as the highest scoring Bulls game in history and one of the highest in the history of the NBA. Lauri and teammate Zach LaVine each scored 31 in the seemingly endless game, the most memorable one of the entire season, and Lauri did the dirty work down low, grabbing 17 rebounds against a Hawks team that fought for every possession. An instant classic, and Lauri was a big reason it ended with the Bulls on top.
December 7, vs Oklahoma City (Bulls 114, Thunder 112)
Markkanen Stat Line: 24 points (8-12 FG), 4-8 3PT, 4-5 FT, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists, 1 block
This was not among Markkanen's most statistically impressive games, but it deserves mention for the circumstances and meaning. The Bulls were coming into this game against Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the Thunder on a seven-game losing streak and having come off a coaching change, with newly promoted coach Jim Boylen making his home debut as the head man on the bench. Lauri was also making his home debut after having missed the first six weeks of the season with an elbow injury, and boy did he put on a show.
In just his third game back from injury, Markkanen was an efficient 8 of 12 from the field with seven rebounds. But beyond the stats, it was his play in the final 30 seconds of the game that not only saved the Bulls after a Dennis Schroder drive gave the Thunder a 110-109 lead, but illustrated his value to the team and his impact in today's NBA. First, Markkanen took a drive down the lane, collapsing the defense and enabling him to swing the ball to the corner to an open Justin Holiday, who hit the open triple to give the Bulls a 112-110 lead. Then, after a Westbrook basket tied the game with 19 seconds left, Markkanen hit a running shot with 4.9 seconds left that won the game, snapped the losing streak and gave the team a huge win against a good team in front of their home crowd.