Once the NBA season starts, it becomes like a marathon race with the games coming relentlessly like mile markers, concerned less with the last than the next. So Thursday early afternoon in the wake of the disappointing opening night loss in Charlotte, Bulls players considered Friday's game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Certainly, there was no ignoring the defensive lapses in Charlotte, the drive-kick-swing of the youthful and eager Hornets players, sniping away with 23 three pointers in 44 attempts, often seemingly enough alone that they had to check if there was a timeout. Bulls players and coach Jim Boylen insisted it could be remedied.
"I've always said when the lights come on, he's a different cat. The lights came on and he was ready to roll. I think he is a special player."
Coach Boylen on Lauri Markkanen
So the Bulls watched a replay of their flaws and faults in the 126-125 defeat and then headed to the gym at Christian Brothers University, a private school on a leafy campus on Memphis' east side. Balls were bouncing, sneakers were squeaking and music was blaring, the modern NBA sound machine, as Lauri Markkanen approached Boylen at center court before practice.
Lauri Markkanen Highlights vs. Hornets
"I had 35 and 17, coach," Markkanen said about his virtual career statistical night. "And I didn't even play well. I think I can play better."
"I said, ‘I think you probably can play better,'" Boylen said later in relating the encounter. "He played hard. When he plays hard, he's a really good player. I've always said when the lights come on, he's a different cat. The lights came on and he was ready to roll. I think he is a special player."
Overlooked and perhaps unappreciated amidst the loss to a rebuilding Charlotte team and Zach LaVine's late driving lay-up score when the Bulls trailed by three was perhaps the best overall game of Markkanen's three-year NBA career.
And that despite the seven footer known for his shooting missing six of his seven three-point attempts.
"He didn't shoot the ball well from three and still had 30-some points," marveled veteran Thad Young. "That should tell you how capable he is of having a big night when he starts off aggressive. That's a sign for him being a big time guy."
Most of the team's star attention this preseason was on the possibilities with LaVine and the rapid development of rookie Coby White. Markkanen, who is generally shy with a subtle and puckish sense of humor, often seemed disengaged. But once it mattered, Markkanen mattered more than most.
The graceful seven footer had one of the league's best debut games this season, third in scoring, fifth in rebounding and eighth in field goal attempts among all players. It quietly—as much as 35 and 17 can be—was one of the elite games of Markkanen's career, tied with his career scoring high and surpassing every game in his rookie season, including his 33 points against Kristaps Porzinigis in Madison Square Garden. Last season, Markkanen had more than 17 rebounds in a game twice, the only games to rival Wednesday's when he had 31 points, 17 rebounds and 10 of 12 free throws in the four-overtime Atlanta game and his career game of 35 points, 15 rebounds and eight of nine free throws a week earlier against Boston.
That those games were wins, however, was about all that mattered to Markkanen.
"He has the ability to shoot the ball, but he also has the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive the basketball. It makes it difficult when he's out there dribbling the basketball and making plays because a lot of big guys are not used to that; it makes us more dynamic as a team."
Thad Young on Lauri Markkanen
"The stats are a thing I don't care about," Markkanen insisted, and with him as opposed to some others one can tell he's being sincere. "Even if you have 35 and 17 and you lose the game, it doesn't matter. I need to do what the team needs me to do to help the team win. Obviously wasn't able to do enough last night."
The relative ease with which Markkanen recorded the extraordinary statistics was exceptional. If he can do that consistently with LaVine's talent—watch out Grizzlies, Zach was frustrated in the opener—the Bulls could have one of the league's best offensive combinations.
"His offensive skill set is way better than I thought," Young said about Markkanen. "He has the ability to shoot the ball, but he also has the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive the basketball. It makes it difficult when he's out there dribbling the basketball and making plays because a lot of big guys are not used to that; it makes us more dynamic as a team. As he does, and when him and Zach get going together it makes us a hard team to stop.
"I've been in this league 13 years and seen a lot," Young added. "I know when I see potential in guys and I see a lot of potential in those guys."
Neither LaVine nor Markkanen is regarded as a top defender, and that is not likely to change a great deal, especially with Markkanen being asked to play a lot of center. It's easy to forget the centers have to run the full 94 feet both ways, and what separated Markkanen against the Hornets was his drives to the basket and second shots with five offensive rebounds. He's not a powerful player yet, so can he keep that up?
Markkanen drew raves his rookie season even as nagging injuries cost him 14 games. But when he missed the first two months last season with an elbow injury, came back slowly and then crashed after the four-overtime game and missed the last seven games with a health scare that proved unfounded Markkanen dropped from the radar of the league's star gazers.
When Sports Illustrated preseason made one of those top 100 lists, Markkanen barely made it at No. 84. He got to No. 50 in some others. Challenging the basket, shooting out of the post and climbing on the boards, Markkanen shot out of the season's starting blocks looking like a top 10 talent. Imagine if he just made a few of the shots which are so routine for him.
"The main thing was to be aggressive and attack (against the Hornets)," Markkanen said. "Not just shoot jump shots; get to the rim. That was the main goal. There are a lot of things I can do better. I missed a lot of easy shots, too. Definitely, I can improve. That's been my thing (threes), but I am trying to expand my game a little bit. It makes me and the team harder to guard, keeps the defenses honest."
"There are things I did throughout my first two years I need to get better at," Markkanen said. "I'm not looking back too much with the games coming now and having to stay ready to play and get better. I don't think I did anything special last night. I thought I did it off the system, on the pick and roll and going to the basket. To see I can do that, of course, it give some hope that's where I can push myself going forward."