Lauri Knows Better Days Are Ahead

'Keep calm and carry on' is the message that Lauri is sharing with the media. After a slow start to the season, Lauri is spending his time focusing on getting better - with both on-court and off-court work. Coach Boylen has also added some 'things to the system' for Lauri to get the ball in his hands more.

Lauri Markkanen's hair is colorful, though not quite as rust colored. He lacks the freckles, but he often reveals a similar impish smile, if not gap-toothed. There's both a sense of mischief and self assurance behind those knowing eyes. Lauri Markkanen doesn't look quite like Mad magazine cover boy Alfred E. Neuman; presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is perhaps the cosmetic model.

Markkanen just may reflect more the philosophy: What, me worry?

"I've had difficult times my first two years, so I wouldn't say it's my first one," Markkanen was saying Tuesday afternoon before the Bulls flew to San Francisco for Wednesday's game against the depleted Warriors. "But you always come through these. I'm staying positive about it, staying confident, keep working and take what the defense gives me.

"It's a lot of mental stuff," Markkanen acknowledged. "When I say I keep working, it's not just on the court. Obviously, you do off the court stuff, too. Think the game and get better that way. You can't put your head down and give up. You just keep working and better times are ahead. I give myself a little bit (of time) after the game to either be happy about the performance or be a little down about the performance. But after that, you just have to let it go. And it's a new game and a new day and it's nothing too bad."

And so on marches Lauri Markkanen through the poorest of his three NBA seasons and bordering on the worst month of his pro career; perhaps even since he was a reluctant star in his Helsinki basketball academy after leaving his hometown of Jyvaskyla. Once the slender seven-foot Markkanen was the star of the debate question of whether if the 2017 draft was redone he would be the top selection after going No. 7. Not so much anymore as players like Bam Adebayo, John Collins, Malik Monk, Zach Collins, Luke Kennard and Kyle Kuzma have assumed significant roles along with the likes of De'Aaron Fox, Jason Tatum, Josh Jackson and Donovan Mitchell.

It's likely a relief to Markkanen, though probably not the Bulls, that no one asks Markkanen anymore about being the next Dirk Nowitzki.

Markkanen this season has been the favorite target of the "What's wrong?" questions regarding the Bulls' own "What's wrong" 6-12 start. Markkanen is averaging career lows of 13.6 points and 7.1 rebounds and shooting career lows — by a large margin — of 35.6% and a shocking 28.3% on three pointers.

It's even gotten worse this month with Markkanen averaging 12.1 points and 6.1 rebounds on 33.8 percent shooting in November with more than half his attempts three pointers. One of Markkanen's greatest strengths as the No. 7 pick in the 2017 draft was his effortless shooting range. It wasn't supposed to be that way exclusively.

Bulls Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations John Paxson spoke regularly during Markkanen's rookie season about his versatility and how that could make him a special player.

"He's shown glimpses of some iso game where you can throw him the ball, like Nowitzki used to do at the elbow and mid-post," Paxson said during that Markkanen rookie season. "That's going to be his next step. Below the free throw line, where he can be a player with, whether it's shot fakes, drives, footwork, pullups; that's the next step. It goes back to why we're excited about him; he's not a finished product."

After everyone got through with the Finnish product jokes, that's not the Markkanen we've seen this season.

He's played almost exclusively as a stand still three point shooter on the perimeter in the Bulls offense, which relies on spacing around the perimeter and an emphasis on three-point shots.

It's hardly a revolutionary tactic since much of the NBA now adopts the premise.

But it's been a road block for Markkanan and massive detour from the All-Star road the Bulls were hoping for this season with the annual game in the United Center in February.

Markkanen seemed on the designated path as runner up in 2018 in the Skills Challenge at the All-Star weekend and a participant in the Rising Stars game his first two seasons, runner-up to scoring leader Ben Simmons last year.

But only in February of his rookie season when he was experiencing back problems that would curtail his season has Markkanen had a poorer month than this November. And it's been trending downward even more lately as his playing time has been reduced, failing to play 30 minutes in any of the last five games with three of those scoring in single digits. Markkanen has had double figure games in rebounds just once this month after doing so in the first two games of the season.

"What I think he needs to do is continue to work and stay positive," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "Continue to take his open looks, continue to recognize when he's open, when he can drive it, when he can playmake. And when he can create, rebound the ball at a high level, which he is a heck of a defensive rebounder, and just keep growing in the system. We've added something in the system for him. Because we've added them doesn't mean that he's going to score off of them. He's going to make decisions out of them. He broke out against Detroit (24 points Nov. 20) and he'll break out again. Hopefully we can sustain it for him and with him, and he can sustain it for us and with us."

Lauri Scores 24 Points Against Pistons

The additions Boylen mentioned without specifying presumably involve more mid range and post scoring opportunities since it's been clear Markkanen is out of place just standing mostly in one place. He's too talented to remain merely a perimeter shooting option.

Though the Bulls have endured multiple painful losses this season, a major Markkanen move could make up for a lot of the mess.

That Markkanen remains composed and cool on the exterior belies the competitive nature. His manner speaks to confidence more than indifference. If anything, he can't believe he won't again be who he's always been on the basketball court. He's probably not much of a fan of the way he's been used thus far, but he's not the kind to ever say so. At least so fans or media know.

"You're really trying to get me to say something?" Markkanen said with a laugh and playful glance when asked about another of the Bulls latest activities, the player/coach meeting.

Though Markkanen is circumspect with media, teammates say he's been typically upbeat and positive. He maintains a wry wit as often a satirical observer of the mad Bulls scene.

"Me and Coach talk all the time," Markkanen said. "We have a good relationship. I feel like I can say whatever I need to say. We've had multiple conversations, so it's not about that."

Boylen did say after the loss to Portland he plans to play Markkanen 32-34 minutes per game, but only didn't Monday because the starters came out with a large deficit.

It's another of those crucial stretches this week for the Bulls against Golden State, Portland and Sacramento in an early season of crucial stretches because of the slow start. The team reaches the milestone 20-game mark this week when teams are expected to be somewhat settled. Though despite the disappointment and angst, it doesn't appear any significant changes are imminent. You don't sell low, and it's been a difficult start for many of the Bulls regulars. Otto Porter Jr. remains out injured, though Chandler Hutchison and Luke Kornet are practicing again. Despite the frustrations and occasional fiascos, the Eastern Conference playoff positioning remains easily accessible. The Bulls left for the trip a game out of eighth. It's hardly the ultimate goal, though also not the signal for a lost season.

Similarly for Lauri Markkanen.

Perhaps his opening game 35 points and 17 rebounds won't be routine, but he's also confident the hardships of recent weeks will soon be a memory.

Lauri Scores 35 Points Against Hornets in Season Opener

What, Lauri worry?

"We can get a couple wins on this trip as long as we play our own game," Markkanen said. "We didn't get stops (Monday) and I think we could've. So we get another chance in Portland. Road trips are always good for team get togethers. We still have a long way to go. I think we're getting better every day. We had a really good practice. It's good to get on the road and get the team together and hang out.

"It's a different role (for me), kind of playing a different way of basketball right now. So it's just something we have to get used to and hopefully we can figure it out," Markkanen said. "I wish I had some (advice for myself). Just the things I've said a thousand times already, keep working, stay positive and don't put your head down and obviously work every day with individual stuff and collectively as a team and try to grab some wins."

And, of course, just don't be Mad.