Lauri Markkanen Friday will play in his second All-Star Weekend Rising Stars game that is a glimpse of the freshmen and sophomores a vote of league assistant coaches believe will carry the NBA into the next decade.
Philadelphia's Ben Simmons will be there along with Utah's Donovan Mitchell and Dallas' celebrated rookie Luka Doncic, the trio the NBA featured when announcing the teams of U.S. players to face off against World players.
That Markkanen was selected is impressive because he missed the first two months of the season injured, and some of the rookies from last season didn't get a return invite.
"I didn't start playing for getting onto this team," Markkanen said this week. "It's nice to see that people respect and wanted me into that game. I'm honored, excited to go there again. It means a lot to me, for sure, to be a second time included on that team. I didn't start the way I wanted to coming off an injury, so I've been glad just to be back on the court and do what I do."
What Markkanen does has been quietly impressive now that he finally has regained his health, averaging 25.3 points and 12.5 rebounds the last six games, double-doubles in eight of the last nine games (30 points and nine rebounds in the other) and an impressive run averaging 21.4 points and 11.6 rebounds for more than a month. He is averaging 18.5 points and 8.8 rebounds overall.
Little known is that the second-year seven footer from Finland was so anxious to return, he admitted he wasn't close to full health Dec. 1 when he rammed his way back into the Bulls lineup. The injuries were decimating the Bulls season, and he couldn't stand it.
"I could have waited longer," Markkanen acknowledged about his uncertain return with three single digit scoring games in his first nine. "If I wanted to be 100 percent, I probably would have been coming back now. I knew there was nothing that could get hurt again. I was cleared to go. It didn't feel right yet. But I felt the way to get it back quicker was to play.
"I knew I would kind of be off and be a little rusty," Markkanen admitted. "So I wanted to get it out of the way then. I was medically cleared to go, so playing was the way. I'm still getting there. I'm not nearly as strong as I was before the year. I feel like me last year at this point (strength wise), which is unfortunate. But it will get back. I know I will get the strength back quicker because I once had it, so it's easier to get it back. I wouldn't say I'm as weak as I was last year; I didn't go all the way back, obviously. But I felt pretty good going into the season and raring to go."
Markkanen has been going strong, his best run in his short NBA career despite the setback in strength and muscle definition. Which can get a player overlooked, as it often has with Markkanen. Playing for a team with a losing record rarely on national TV adds to the camouflaged stardom.
Which hardly causes a ripple in Markkanen's serene ocean of confidence.
He's much more conversant than he was last year as the shy, uncertain rookie. His subtle humor often surfaces with a grin and a nuance. You have to listen carefully, like when he mentions about having to Finnish better or being stitious from the TV show instead of superstitious, or pulling out his draft day Timberwolves suit and Finland flag to just remind Minnesota.
The latter, by the way, was a little bit of Twitter fun, which Markkanen isn't having much of these days and why he didn't really know whom the NBA was celebrating or featuring for the Rising Stars game.
Lauri Markkanen is unusual in many ways, and not just being a potential 20/10 star for the Bulls, a graceful seven footer who effortlessly shoots three pointers and is working his way toward being the ultimate NBA mismatch with his size, shooting and strength to be.
Though Markkanen is perhaps more unusual among the potential NBA stars—the Gens X, Ys and Zs everywhere—for his exodus from social media to concentrate on two priorities, basketball and family.
"I would say other people would say my life is boring, but it is not for me," says Markkanen. "I like it and I love to be around them (wife and son). After we are done, I go home and do whatever I can to help her. I have a lot of respect for her for taking care of him all day long, and especially when we travel. Travel is part of it, so she understands and I understand this is what I have to do and what I want to do."
Few of the kids who come into the NBA are married, though Markkanen's had a long-term relationship back to high school.
"I'd been knowing her long time; even in middle school I talked to her a couple times and in high school we started dating," Markkanen said about his wife, Verna. "We had this long distance relationship; last year was our first year together.
"So I really don't pay much attention to what it says in the media, though not because of anything that was said. I am off media, so I really don't know what's going on," said Markkanen.
We knew he was foreign, but this foreign?
A 21-year-old not on his phone all day? Good luck walking into an NBA locker room, or just about any room these days, and seeing someone with their eyes actually up. It's perhaps one reason Markkanen is first for interviews after Bulls games. Nothing to see here on a phone.
"I know now it's not a big deal what is happening on Twitter and stuff like that, so I deleted the apps," Markkanen revealed to imagined gasps. "What we went through this season was pretty tough, losing, the coaching change, what was being said. But the main reason was I saw I happened to be on Twitter at home and even with my son there, I was on my phone. So I deleted all that so I could be with him. So he doesn't grow up watching me on my phone.
"I didn't grow up with my parents watching the phone and not talking to me because they were locked on the phone," said Markkanen. "I want to be with him and have a close relationship with him. But it was like automatic: Lunch table, pull out my phone and kind of know everything. And then I started thinking there's really nothing important going on. When you're there it feels like it is important, but when you put your phone away you think, ‘What did I accomplish the last 10 minutes? I didn't get any new real information. Maybe I saw what kind of shoes someone wore or what kind of outfit someone wore.' Which I really don't care about.
"I feel much more relaxed not staying in there and knowing what's going on," Markkanen admitted. "I don't judge anybody; there's nothing wrong if it's good for them. I set up on my iPhone this screen time and how many times you pick up your phone in a hour. I got notifications I was picking it up six times per hour, spending like five and a half hours on and I didn't accomplish anything.
"I've always had so much fun with basketball. It was everything," said Markkanen. "But when I came in my first year and I kind of struggled (averaging about 14 points the first half of last season, missing some games with back spasms), I'd go home being all sad about it because it was supposed to be fun. But it was my job. When my son was born, it kind of divided that. Bad game, but then when I closed the door of the locker room, it was a bad day at work and now I am with my family and everything is good; that is a difference for me and it's been a difference this year. Helped me.
"I just go home and play with him," Markkanen says. "He's walking around now, says some words. We speak Finnish at home, so he will be fortunate to know two languages, most likely with no accent. He goes to school here and his friends speak English. We'll teach him a third one. I know l'm anxious to learn a third, maybe Spanish."
Perhaps German, also, Markkanen finally getting an opportunity to be up close and personal with the NBA player many often liken him to—and the Bulls can only hope—Dirk Nowitzki. The future Hall of Famer who is likely to retire after this season is honorary coach for the World Team.
Markkanen has tired of the frequent comparisons, but says he's excited to play for Dirk.
"I definitely looked up to him," Markkanen said. "I'm honored to be in the game and that he's coaching is surreal to me. Hopefully he gives me some playing time and I am not on the bench."
There's a wink in those words.
This isn't a man who is going to be overlooked or disregarded no matter the current trends or favorites.