Sometimes these days you almost think of Lauri Markkanen wearing a long sleeve polo shirt with horizontal red and white stripes, a stocking cap and glasses. You know, like where’s Vallu? Where’s Waldo?
No, where’s Lauri been?
“Got to look in the mirror at myself and how can I do better,” Markkanen was saying Thursday after Bulls practice at Portland State U. “It starts with that. If there are times guys don’t find me, they will find me once I am more aggressive; it can be a little bit of both. It is still a new system and the sample size is not too big. We are all trying to stay positive and keep an open mind.”
The Bulls certainly will need that - or at least a closed memory of the 92-point first half beating they took in November — with Friday’s game against the Golden State Warriors. The Bulls at 10-31 are coming off a late fade in Wednesday’s loss in Portland. It was a big game for Wendell Carter Jr. with 22 points, but another mystery about the whereabouts of Markkanen, who was sixth on the team in scoring and attempted just two more shots than Antonio Blakeney.
Unselfish is good; uninvolved isn’t.
“I think it takes time,” said the unflappable Markkanen. “We work on it everyday. There are games I get the ball a lot and there are games I don’t. But I try to control what I can control, which is to play defense and do my best on that end of the court. I know the offense will follow. It hasn’t been consistent yet, but I am sure it will come.”
It’s not like Markkanen is having a bad season except for, well, being injured for 10 weeks. Which may have something to do with some offensive sputters.
“In fairness to him, I think its safe to say that thing isn’t 100 percent yet,” said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. “Is he close? Yeah. It’s got to stick in his mind. That was a very serious injury; that’s a very painful injury. It’s going to take some time. But we still have him try to play the right way, be aggressive and handle his moments.”
Markkanen isn’t having a poor season, even if it started so late.
He is averaging 17 points and 7.3 rebounds and shooting 39 percent on threes. In 68 games as a rookie last season, he averaged 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 36 percent on threes.
But the concern, though not serious quite yet, is Markkanen is regarded as perhaps the primary core player in the Bulls rebuild, a grateful seven footer with a picture shooting stroke, a seeming mismatch nightmare with size and elusiveness. So perhaps attempting 12 shots in one game like in Portland is an outlier. But since Markkanen had back to back 30-plus scoring games just before Christmas, he’s scored 20 points just once in seven games and is averaging fewer points in January compared with during his return in December.
Of course, defenses are going to focus on Markkanen when the Bulls are playing such non scoring options as Chandler Hutchison, Ryan Arcidiacono and Shaw Harrison.
But often Markkanen is seen standing around on the perimeter and going long stretches without being a primary feature of the offense. No one, especially Markkanen, thinks anyone is avoiding him. And everyone is trying to adapt to a new offensive system focused more on playing inside/out and driving the ball.
Having a varied offense is a fine concept in theory, but most teams seem to want their best players taking most of the shots. Especially the way Markkanen shoots.
Though part of the problem, if you can call it that, rests with Markkanen because he is too good a teammate. He has this quaint notion about passing to an open teammate. Which sounds fine in principle, though we often see those open teammates pass up those shots because they don’t shoot them so well.
“I saw something about green light,” Markkanen said with a laugh. “I have to talk to coach about that, but I’d rather have plays where I get good shots rather than trying to force something up. I think it all starts from being aggressive and getting to my spots, try to make the right basketball plays. Whatever it is to make the team better that’s how I’ve been as long as I can remember. I’d rather take those good shots and make the team better that way.”
Darn those fundamentals.
Concepts which haven’t generally filtered down to the likes of James Harden, Russell Westbrook and most of the top scorers in the NBA.
It’s principled to be a good teammate. But sometimes you have to be a little selfish for the good of your team.
Which seems to be the dilemma for Markkanen, who grew up doing the right thing instead of what sometimes is considered the NBA thing.
Not that your Dunn and LaVine and Carter and Portis are just faces in a crowd of Whitebeards, Wendas and Wilmas. They need to stand out in their way and all have this season.
Markkanen is just 21, and as Boylen noted with injuries basically just finishing one full NBA season of games. But he also is too good and too talented, and much too good a shooter and scorer, to often be lost among them.
“We saw that a few weeks ago when he had those big games and people have adjusted,” Boylen noted. “We have to adjust again; he has to adjust. He’s a huge part of what we are doing and where we are going and we need to help him and he needs to help himself and we need to play better when he’s out there.
“I talk to him about where we are today and getting better,” said Boylen. “I am sure there’s some of that (disappointment about this season). We’re all human. But we have to keep pushing forward and he has to be ready to play (Friday) and be ready to have his best performance of the year and the next game have the same thing.”