Kris Dunn vs Lauri Markkanen

The two are headed to Los Angeles for the Rising Stars All-Star game

Lauri Markanen played basketball all summer for his Finland national team. Then he was thrust into the Bulls starting lineup after a preseason altercation between Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. His wife recently gave birth to his first child, and, according to Markkanen, the fun and excitement just keeps coming. This weekend it's in Los Angeles with the Rising Stars game and the Skills Challenge.

"It's basketball; it's fun," said Markkanen. "I'm practicing a little bit. I'm doing the drills. I know everything I can do on those drills. So I should be good."

The Bulls 20-year-old rookie isn't tired; he can't wait and has been quietly practicing the Skills Challenge obstacle course when he's not working out with the Bulls and minding the baby and, is this a great country, or what?

"It took me awhile to actually not be like, 'Am I really here?'" Markkanen said after practice earlier this week.

He's made a mark already.

Lauri Markkanen rebounds the ball.

Though the Bulls closed the unofficial NBA first half—actually 70 percent of the regular season is complete—with a disappointing home loss to the Toronto Raptors Wednesday, Markkanen and teammate Kris Dunn are excited to be leaving for Los Angeles for the gala NBA All-Star weekend.

The varsity game is Sunday night, this year the first time a sort of pickup game instead of Eastern Conference versus Western Conference. Both Markkanen and Dunn obviously hope to be chosen for that game one day. For now, the esteem is in the selection to what used to be the rookie/sophomore game. It's still for first and and second year players, but now U.S. born players against international players. So Dunn and Markkanen will be on opposite teams and are having fun with the possibilities.

"Hopefully he doesn't shoot a three in my face; I'm not having that," Dunn said with a laugh after Wednesday's game. "If he guards me I'm telling anybody on my team to get out of my way real quick. I have to get a little isolation in, tell everyone to clear out."

Dunn is enjoying himself, perhaps even more than Markkanen in some respects.

It was a long trip from Finland to starting in the NBA in less than two years.

Kris Dunn dribbles the ball.

It may have been longer for Kris Dunn from the NBA purgatory and some said failure as a touted rookie, on the bench and unproductive with the Minnesota Timberwolves, traded already a year after being a top five pick in the NBA draft. And then not even the starter early in the season for the Bulls. But Dunn earned his way into the Bulls starting lineup and even the preliminary role as closer with excellent play until his Jan. 17 concussion.

"It's blessing from where I was last year to fight back and work hard and be recognized to play in a game like this," said Dunn. "Last year was a tough year for me and my family. But I don't try to worry about what the outsiders say. I know what happened. I know my game. It was just about putting the work in (during) the summer. I think I did that. I've got a great support system. They were with me throughout the tough times in Minnesota. For Chicago, to let me come in and hug me with open arms, it was a good feeling. I just worked hard and tried to improve each game.

"Enjoy the moment," Dunn said. "Don't take it for granted; enjoy it with the family."

That's a big part for Dunn, who survived a shocking childhood, he and his brother effectively abandoned when they were children, living alone for a time, a 13-year-old taking care of nine-year-old Kris until eventually being reunited with their father. And then onto an all-American career at Providence amidst serious injuries, rebounding to be drafted high and then back to the bottom in Minnesota, often doubted and dismissed. And now a crucial part of the Bulls future.

Kris Dunn dribbles the ball.

"My team and coaching staff made it happen," Dunn said about his improvement and the Rising Stars invite. "They put me in the right situation and allowed me to be the player I could be for the team. I'm really doing it all for my family. Just allow them to have that experience, allow them to have fun. My sisters, they're young. So they might see some celebrities out there. That's what they've been talking about. Lil Uzi, Kanye West, the Kardashians, all the stuff you see on TV. Hopefully they get to see them. I told them, 'If you see them, go get that picture. Now, if anybody puts their hands on you, I got you.' It's all about the family."

The Bulls hope they produce maintain that family culture with their team as well with Dunn, Markkanen and Zach LaVine among those featured players.

The Rising Stars game is Friday night and then the Skills Challenge Saturday to set up the All-Star three-point and dunk contests.

Former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie also will compete with big men on one side of the bracket in the Skills Challenge course with dribbling, passing and shooting that includes a closing three. It's a timed course, so Markkanen has an edge with his shooting.

"For Lauri to (also) be in the game, many more accomplishments are going to be with him," predicted Dunn. "I'm not going to try to do too much. I'm going to go out there and have fun. If Lauri guards me, I'm going to try to give it to him, do a couple of moves on him. It will be fun to just guard each other. Go out there and smile. Shoot bad, shoot good; just have a good time with it."

As for Markkanen, well, "I love what I'm doing," he said. "So I can't really be exhausted."

The Bulls are allowing themselves a little smile seeing where their young guys are going.

Lauri Markkanen handles the ball.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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