As Lauri Markkanen prepares to enter his fourth season, he told media members on Monday afternoon that he's determined to have a bounce-back season under the direction of new head coach Billy Donovan.
A year ago Monday was a much happier time, and not only for Perrion Callandret, Milton Doyle and Justin Simon who were added to the Bulls 2019-20 training camp roster. No one had to wear a mask or stand a body length apart. High fives and hugs were welcomed. The most significant number was expected wins instead of feared deaths.
And Lauri Markkkanen was on the brink of NBA stardom.
The graceful seven footer had sat out the last few weeks of the previous season as a precaution over a heart scare that turned out to be merely diet misdirection. The team's record and desire for a high draft pick didn't make his presence necessary. But it was becoming hard to miss after the run of his career, three consecutive games scoring at least 30 points in February that kicked off a month in which Markkanen averaged 26.5 points and 12.6 rebounds, the Bulls winning seven of 12 games in a season in which they were 22-60. Markkanen was being mentioned as a candidate for best in his 2017 draft class among Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell. Bam Adebayo and De'Aaron Fox weren't in the conversation.
Now a year later in a time that's been overshadowed by worldwide suffering and massive dislocation, Lauri Markkanen's fate isn't particularly significant. Except to the Bulls, who have also gone through a vast sea change with new management and a new head coach. And to Lauri Markkanen, whose career and Bulls future faces a reckoning after three year lows in scoring, rebounding, shooting and general engagement for a team now under a Hubble microscope. There's an old saying around the NBA that after your third season, you are who you are. If that's Lauri Markkanen, no one wants to hear about the familiar it is what it is. Lauri Markkanen for two seasons around unexpected injuries was on an All-Star arc. The Bulls hope that arc bends again toward excellence.
"I think we thought we would have been better last year, but of course I'm going to look at myself. I can always go and play with more energy and I can always rebound better, and I think that's what gets me going," Markkanen said Monday afternoon in a Zoom conference during Advocate Bulls Minicamp. "I think it just pushed me this summer. I've been going hard and I'm really excited about the upcoming year and think I can make the comeback.
Lauri Markkanen at Advocate Bulls Minicamp
"I kind of had a down year last year," Markkanen admitted. "So it was mentally a new experience for me. I can kind of learn from that. I feel more mature. To react to all the things that happened around the league, I know for a fact that people kind of, with my down year, don't expect that big of things from me going in. Of course, my expectations are even higher than ever now, just going back to my fourth year and performing at a high level. I've got to show people that I can come back from the down year I had and it didn't put me down at all. I do want to prove all the people wrong."
But Markkanen's return to perhaps a norm, when it was almost assumed he'd be almost an automatic 20/10 player, is vital for a substantial Bulls improvement.
The NBA remembers and forgets quickly.
It now knows much better Adebayo, Mitchell, Tatum, Jamal Murray and Devin Booker. They are the emerging young stars.
Lauri Markkanen becomes an ESPN Trade Machine hobby for fans.
Markkanen is confident he can change that impression whenever the NBA begins to play again. It's also a vital time for Markkanen's Bulls career, the fourth season on a rookie contract generally being when a player will get an extension or move into potential free agency. "I don't really worry about that," Markkanen said. "I'll let my agent work that out with the front office. I do want to stay in Chicago for the long term. That's my main goal, to hang out and try to build up relationships with the guys and get to play with them and get the chemistry going. I just worry about the things I can control on the floor. I'll let other guys work on the contract stuff.
Lauri goes against Luke Kornet at Advocate Bulls Minicamp
"I do feel very confident going into this year," Markkanen said. "I think when you look at our team and the players on paper, we should have a really good team. I think the direction we're going as an organization, I'm really confident going in. The experience that coach (Billy) Donovan has to bring to the table, I think we're going to be good."
Markkanen's return to at least a form of his play from his first two seasons at still just 23 years old would go a long way toward altering the Bulls status.
"I do think I can be more productive, more versatile than I was last year," Markkanen insisted. "Not all times, but there were times I felt like I was just used as spacing the floor. But I think just talking to Billy I'm really confident this year just by (our) one conversation how he uses players to their strengths. Just getting me into actions, coming off ball screens, and he talked about posting up right away. Just being involved. He kind of asked me where do I want the ball and what do I want to do with it. So I'm excited to work with him."
Markkanen despite the confusion around the Bulls last season with the disappointing play, whispers of change and sudden halt to the season generally maintained an airy calm. He was frustrated by a declining role that often had him standing on the perimeter waiting for a pass for a three-point shot. His wry observations mostly were cryptic with a wink.
Lauri Markkanen goes for a layup against the Sacramento Kings
His eyes were smiling and he was playful with media members Monday, answering with some expansion but mostly mischievously urging a final question. He confirmed a first conversation with Donovan and an inaugural golf swing since the Bulls added a golf simulator to the after school activities in their bubble/campus for the minicamp that concludes Oct. 6. "This week has been great," Markkanen said. "Everybody's so excited. There was a lot of energy in the building. We got to play for the first time in whatever, six months it's been. So everybody has been really excited to play against each other and actually got to compete. I talked to Billy one time. It was more about just can't wait to actually see each other and get to chat about off-the-court stuff and basketball. So we haven't talked too much.''
Markkanen, typically, wasn't expansive on the departure of coach Jim Boylen. He said he was working out at the Advocate Center that morning when he heard the news of Boylen's dismissal.
"Things didn't go our way, but that's on all of us," Markkanen said. "Nothing against him. I wish him the best and we move on. I didn't really have a reaction. It was just a weird day.
"I had good times with Jim," Markkanen said. "He took me when he was an assistant coach, me coming into my rookie year. So he was a big part of my career. I picked a lot of stuff from all the coaches. Obviously Fred (Hoiberg) was more offensive minded. Obviously, it would help to play for one coach. I think I could have played better. Maybe I wouldn't have a third coach in four seasons. I'm just trying to look forward and be positive. I'm just really excited to work with coach Donovan from this point on."
Markkanen said he's had sessions with new executives Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley. He said their message has been to increase his energy and pursuit of rebounds.
"We haven't talked that much," Markkanen said. "That's what AK wants me to do, I'm sure." Markkanen says he stayed in Chicago from the March shutdown until mid-June before returning home to Finland for a month. He said the virus was mostly absent or well managed there. So he scrimmaged with the national team players and then returned to Chicago in July and has been here since.
"Everybody is just super happy to be on the floor after six months," Markkanen said. "I'm just super excited about this year and I think we're moving in the right direction.''