The Jimmy Butler trade last June probably was the most significant trade in the history of the Bulls franchise. Never had the Bulls traded an All-Star player in his prime like Butler. So the Bulls have considered the players acquired in that trade, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the draft rights to Lauri Markkanen, as the building blocks for the franchise's future. All three have excelled at times this season, though because of injuries and LaVine's recovery from knee surgery, the trio hasn't played together that much. Still, they are expected to be the foundation for the team the Bulls hope to build in these coming years. Both Dunn and LaVine because of recent injuries and health problems will not play again this season. Markkanen continues to play, though it's possible he misses a game in the last week because of recent back and elbow issues. I met with each last week during the Texas/Florida trip for a brief question-and-answer about their first seasons with the Bulls. This is the third of three parts:
Lauri Markkanen is not only an unlikely NBA player, but certainly an unlikely principal part of a team's future. Markkanen is a native of Finland. His parents were athletes, but from a country with little basketball history. Markkanen was even a reluctant basketball participant at first, eventually leaving his home during his high school years to join an academy in Helsinki. That led to the whirlwind that became a year at the U. of Arizona, being drafted No. 7 last year, a summer becoming a dominant player in EuroBasket and then unexpectedly being thrust into the Bulls starting lineup when Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic, both considered more advanced, had a fight and each missed the start of the season. Markkanen quickly became one of the best rookies in the NBA and in Bulls franchise history. He became the fastest player in NBA history to make 100 three-point shots and surpassed the two previous NBA players from Finland in career scoring. He is certain to be first team all-rookie, the 15th Bulls player to achieve that honor Nikola Mirotic was the last in 2015. Before him was Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Elton Brand, Charles Oakley, Michael Jordan, Quintin Dailey, David Greenwood, Reggie Theus, Scott May, Clifford Ray and Erwin Mueller. Markkanen is the team's leading scorer and rebounder this season for players with more than 25 games. He is averaging 15.1 points and 7.5 rebounds. Markkanen among NBA rookies is fifth in scoring, second in rebounding, third in three pointers made and first in free throw percentage. Markkanen had the game winning shot in the team's first win of the season and another game in December to break a 10-game losing streak. Markkanen also was a prime player in the All-Star weekend Rising Stars game and runner-up in the Skills Challenge. He had one of the best games of the NBA season with 33 points, 10 rebounds and eight threes in 46 minutes in a double overtime win in New York. The seven footer is closing the season strong, scoring at least 22 points in three of the team's last four games despite sitting out the fourth quarters and averaging about 24 minutes per game. He doesn't turn 21 until May, 22.
Bulls.com: What were your expectations for this season and coming to the NBA after being drafted?
Markkanen: For me, I try to not even think about it. It's a challenge for you no matter wherever you go first year in the league. How to manage everything, new teammates, new system, new style of play; it's different. So I tried not to think about it and do my own thing. To be honest, even though I expect a lot from myself, for my rookie year I knew how tough it would be. So I didn't have too many expectations for my first year.
Bulls.com: Because you had modest college career stats (15.1 points and 7.2 rebounds)? But then you were much more productive in the EuroBasket (19.5 points). Which did you think would be you?
Markkanen: I knew the NBA is a little tougher. I can't even remember my averages at Arizona. About 14 and a half, I think. I knew the NBA was going to be tougher than college, so that's why I say I knew it would be a challenge. I just tried to come in with the mindset I had to work for everything and I'm not going to get anything easy.
Bulls.com: What were your goals compared with your expectations? Everyone thought you'd be a backup for maybe 18 minutes per game. So was it all a surprise?
Markkanen: I didn't know how much I was going to play. I knew Niko and Bobby are really good players and I would have to work for everything. I was kind of hoping that eventually I would be starting, but with the unfortunate events I started right away. Kind of had to get ready even quicker. Because you are kind of thrown in the fire right away.
Bulls.com: What did you expect for your role?
Markkanen: For me, it was surprising because, obviously, the first year as a professional, not just the NBA but everything's new. It was a lot for me, I'll say that. I was coming in thinking 15, 18 minutes a game and then you start and play 30.
Bulls.com: But then you had to be the closer, too. How was it dealing with all that?
Markkanen: That's what I've always done. I haven't been thinking I would be in the league (right away) doing that, but in my short career I have always tried to be the guy down the stretch who makes plays. Obviously, we have a lot of good players now and I think Kris (Dunn) did a really good job, especially early in the season when he was playing more of making plays down the stretch. I think we have a lot of guys capable of doing that.
Bulls.com: What was your personal highlight this season? Not team, but individual?
Markkanen: My favorite? Probably the dunk at MSG. I like the arena. It's a little different than the others. I like it; not just I hit the eight threes, but in shootaround I liked the arena, too. That dunk, if I had to choose one highlight for the season (Markkanen drove down the right wing and dunked over seven footer Enes Kanter).
Bulls.com: What was personally most disappointing, most discouraging?
Markkanen: I would say discouraging. I don't get discouraged easily. But I had rough stretches when shots weren't falling. The one moment like when you miss a game winner. That first game at Indiana (Dec. 6 last second loss), I had the shot to win the game there. I had the chance to tie the game at New Orleans that went to double overtime. I wouldn't say discouraging. I have a high level of confidence in myself and I think that's the only way you can survive in this league. I think I learned that early. Whatever comes at you, you have to keep on working through it.
(Markkanen had his shot to save the game in Indiana blocked and off him for a turnover just before Victor Oladipo's winner. The very next game, Markkanen had 24 points and 12 rebounds and the game winner in overtime to beat Charlotte)
Bulls.com: What's the biggest thing you carry forward from this season?
Markkanen: That's it; that there are going to be tough times. No one is going to feel sorry for you, that's for sure. So you have to stay in the gym and keep the positive mindset and even when you are playing well, not to get too high; keeping that level.
Bulls.com: What are you planning moving forward?
Markkanen: I definitely have to stay in the weight room; get stronger, of course. I have to work on everything. But I definitely have to get better in the post. That's one thing I will focus on this summer.
Bulls.com: Do you consider it a good season for you individually? Have you been personally pleased?
Markkanen: I don't think I'm ever pleased how I am playing. I have my good moments, but I think I have a little bit of going up and down. Decent, but now I have to work on a lot of things going forward.