Lauri Markkanen high fives fans leaving the court

Lauri Markkanen reflects on his sophomore season

"As a competitor, I feel I could have done better." - Lauri Markkanen

Just before the end of the regular season, the United Nations issued its annual report of the countries where people were happiest. The leaders based on factors of income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity were the Nordic countries led by Finland, home of Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen.

Which led to a predictable media interrogation.

"Hey," Markkanen quipped after explaining the Finnish delights of saunas, forests and reindeer meat, "don't I look happy."

But looks can be deceiving.

And as Markkanen was putting a bow on his 2018-19 season, his second in the NBA with another appearance in the All-Star weekend Rising Stars game, he acknowledged his sophomore year wasn't particularly fulfilling. And he and the Bulls understand if the team is to be delivering some smiles of its own, Markkanen's improvement is essential.

Lauri Markkanen rises up for a dunk at All-Star Weekend

"There were a lot of ups and downs and a lot I can learn from and will learn from," Markkanen said about his injury and illness-marred 52-game season. "I've said it before: The second year is tough because people adjust to you and you don't get to surprise people anymore. I would say for me it was mostly disappointing because of how many games I missed.

"Because even with the guys we have now we should have been a playoff team," Markkanen insisted. "We just have to get it together. It was tough for me to see we didn't do well while I was sitting out and not being able to help. I tried my best to pick it up and we did have a good month (in February). But I could have done a better job. As a competitor, I feel I could have done better."

Call it perhaps the most disappointing 18.7 points and nine rebounds season for a 21-year-old.

Though Zach LaVine has grown into one of the game's top scorers and Otto Porter Jr. is a savvy, versatile veteran with playoff experience, the Bulls seem to be counting on Markkanen's growth and development as a prime element of their rebuilding progress.

"There were a lot of ups and downs and a lot I can learn from and will learn from." - Lauri Markkanen

The seven footer who was the No. 7 overall selection in the 2017 draft from the Jimmy Butler trade has the potential to be one of the most unique and unguardable players in the NBA with his size and shooting ability. He's been likened to Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki, but probably is more athletic with a deeper shot.

The recipe for ultimate NBA success is preparing a main course around special ingredients. Markkanen could be one of those home made specials who transforms a franchise like Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant. And he did increase his scoring average this season from 15.2 as a rookie to 18.7 and rebounding from 7.5 to nine. It's impressive individual progress.

Markkanen also had one of those months that allow the team to dream, the native of Finland averaging 26 points and 12.2 rebounds in 10 February games. But even with those kinds of glimpses of excellence, Markkanen hasn't had much impact on winning with the Bulls falling to 22-60 this season after winning 27 games in his rookie season.

Lauri Markkanen scores a career-high 35pts against Boston in February

Surely, there were complications related to the goals of last season, and then the injuries this season.

But one measure of success is being there. Markkanen hasn't often enough.

After missing 14 games as a rookie with family and back issues, he seemed ready to break out this season with a more sculpted body and weight gain coming into this season. But just a few days into training camp, Markkanen suffered an elbow injury that kept him out until December. He subsequently admitted it took several more weeks to play comfortably. In the midst of that was a coaching change and even what management admitted was an uneasy introduction. Then Markkanen sat out the last seven games of the season with a heart issue that apparently was related just to diet. He was cleared for full basketball activity as the season ended. But it ended with Markkanen playing in just 52 games.

Lauri Markkanen arrives for a game

It was especially disappointing to Markkanen because he was committed to a full season after missing games as a rookie. His play and production was actually remarkable considering the missed time, changes and increased attention from defenses. But the Bulls and Markkanen expect more, and Markkanen is determined to deliver that.

"I know everyone says they have to work on everything, but I definitely am going to get my body ready for a longer season." - Lauri Markkanen

"With the disappointing start being out almost three months, of course, it took a little bit of time to get back. Then I kind of got it going for a little bit and then the setbacks came again," Markkanen lamented. "It was tough to basically have another training camp during the season to learn a new system, but I think we did okay.

"I know everyone says they have to work on everything, but I definitely am going to get my body ready for a longer season, hopefully a post season also. I said before the season my goal is to play all 82, so I'm definitely going to work on my body to get it ready and work on the court as well," Markkanen promised. "There are a lot of things I have to do better. But being consistent is the biggest part and how can I do it every night.

"I think I can be stronger, it will help me on my drives and not getting bumped and posting up smaller players," said Markkanen. "Reading the defense, getting the angles down; stuff like that. As a team, we've got to work on the chemistry better. I saw Zach say (to reporters) something about winning comes first and accolades come after that. You have to win first.

"The All-Star game being in Chicago (next February) is motivation. It's always been my goal," Markkanen admitted. "I'm definitely working as hard as I can to make it. But I'm not putting extra pressure to say I have to make it. I feel an obligation to get better. But I don't feel the obligation to be an All-Star. It's my obligation to get better in every aspect of my game and work on it for the team."

Lauri Markkanen shoots the ball against the Clippers

Perhaps they are unrealistic, but almost to a player despite the record the feeling was this was a playoff level Bulls team on talent, and especially after the acquisition of Porter. Markkanen agrees.

"We had that good stretch, but we have to put it together," Markkanen said. "We didn't have too many games when the whole group of guys played. But when I look around this locker room, I see the talent we have. The thing is we should have been there (playoffs) this year with a healthy group of guys. So we are disappointed with that. So I don't see why not (next season). You never know what will happen this summer, but adding a player should help us even more."

That sure would make a lot of people happy not only in Finland, but in Chicago.

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