Lauri Markkanen Barely Misses the Mark in LA

During The 2018 Skills Challenge, Lauri Markkanen Advanced To The Final Round, But Lost To Former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Lauri Markkanen can dribble, he can pass, and he can shoot. Just not fast enough, as it turned out, as the Bulls rookie forward barely lost in the finals of the NBA Saturday night Skills Challenge to former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie, now with the Nets.

"I saw he missed (his first three)," Markkanen related about Dinwiddie in the contest that requires a made three for the last stage. "Then I started going and thinking he is going to miss the second one, too. If he missed that one, I would have been up next. I think I would have gotten the third shot."

Markkanen, ever confident, had good reason to believe so since he defeated Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid in the first two rounds by making the three on his first attempt.

Get that kid ready for the three-point shooting contest.

The three-point contest was won by the Suns’ Devin Booker. The Jazz’ Donovan Mitchell won the dunk contest.

But even with the runner-up finish, breaking the connective streak of centers winning the contest for the first time, Markkanen continued to surprise and impress around the NBA.

The Skills Challenge that kicks off the Saturday Night events was once a contest dominated by guards with Derrick Rose winning in 2009. Point guards or ball handling guards like Dwyane Wade won it every year from Jason Kidd the first in 2003 through Patrick Beverley in 2015. But in a bow to the developing offensive presence, prowess and versatility of big men in the NBA, the league introduced big men to the contest. Karl Anthony-Towns won in 2016 and Kristaps Porzingis last season.

"We’ve had a group of (big) guys; the last two years the big guy won," the seven-foot Markkanen noted. "I’m kind of (upset) I couldn’t keep the streak going."

Lauri Markkanen dribbles through obstacles during the 2018 Skills Challenge.

Though he hardly was expected to as among the eight contestants, the oddmakers—of course they bet on everything—had Markkanen listed seventh ahead of only Drummond, a poor shooter. Drummond on his first attempt would make his three, though just after Markkanen’s connected. Lou Williams and Jamal Murray were the favorites.

The event features an obstacle course in which participants have to dribble around cones then pass through a hoop, dribble back and make a layup or dunk and then dribble back again for a three. Participants face one another in an elimination.

Markkanen was errorless to start in beating Drummond in the opening round. Embiid defeated Al Horford. Dinwiddie beat Buddy Hield and Murray knocked out Williams.

Dinwiddie, who played for the Bulls in the summer of 2016 and preseason and for Windy City during the 2016-17 inaugural season. defeated Murray. Embiid, who played in the Rising Stars game Friday even as he is playing Sunday in the All-Star game, figured to have the edge against Markkanen as the fan favorite. Though as we’ve seen, the Bulls rookie doesn’t lack confidence.

He and Embiid were close going to the last stage after the pass. They arrived to make the layup or dunk, the final skill before going for the three pointer, simultaneously. Markkanen then employed a bit of gamesmanship to cut off Embiid and thus get downcourt for the three first. Markkanen made his first attempt to win the round.

Against Embiid, I had to do a little bit running in front of him. I had to try to sprint and get in front of him and distract him a little bit, and I think that worked.

Lauri Markkanen

Dinwiddie, a 6-6 point guard, was a top prospect at the U. of Colorado. Then he tore just about every ligament in his knee. He fell to the second round of the 2014 draft and was selected by the Pistons. He played two seasons with the Pistons, mostly in the G-league, and then was traded to the Bulls in June, 2016 for Cameron Bairstow in the Bulls continued quest to find a point guard.

Dinwiddie went to summer league with the Bulls and then played in the preseason. But he was waived before the season started when the Bulls traded for Michael Carter-Williams. The Bulls had Rajon Rondo, Jerian Grant, Isaiah Canaan and would eventually add Cameron Payne.

Dinwiddie decided to play with the G-league Windy City Bulls.

Spencer Dinwiddie while playing for the Windy City Bulls.

Sure, the Bulls were looking for a point guard, but Carter-Williams was more highly regarded. And the Bulls also had Jimmy Butler and Wade, who both did considerable ball handling. Though Dinwiddie hadn’t had much success in the NBA, he looked like an NBA player.

I remember going to Hoffman Estates to see him when he started in the then D-league. He couldn’t have been more positive and upbeat despite the circumstances.

"My journey has been crazy," Dinwiddie said, dressing quietly in the Sears Centre locker room, which didn’t look much different than a high school locker. The team was off the next morning about 5 a.m. for a road trip, leaving by bus.

"When it’s all said and done and I’m on the other side of it, hopefully me and those close to me will be able to laugh at it and laugh at the process," Dinwiddie said then.

It was the first win for coach Nate Loenser, who is back on the Bulls bench this season. Dinwiddie was thrilled for Loenser when we spoke.

"We blew them out," said Dinwiddie. "It went great; the way we came out we drilled them from the start. That’s what you want to do. They never really got it under 20, maybe once. When you get up and they never get back like that you really have played consistent basketball. It’s a testament to our group and our coach, who got his first win tonight. So it’s a big night for him. I thought it was a special night all the way around."

It seemed a remarkable attitude for a player after his second release.

"I’m using it hopefully as a chance to improve and also showcase for teams," said Dinwiddie. "I used preseason (with the Bulls) for that, played in a few games. I think I played well. It was either do this or stay at home and work out if I want to get back in the league. You can get forgotten (playing in Europe). I have some buddies who played exceptionally well there and haven’t had the luck getting back, so I wanted to give this a try for at least another year to get in the league and stick. I feel I’ve proven with time I play well. Everybody around me in my circle, we believe I can play at a very high level. It’s just getting that opportunity. It’s the one thing I haven’t had."

Dinwiddie got that chance when Brooklyn had few players after giving up most of its draft picks to Boston. And then both Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell were hurt earlier this season. Dinwiddie got the chance, and it’s going to be difficult taking it away from him now. He’s among the league leaders in game winning or tying shots in the last minute of games. And the Nets don’t win too much. He is averaging 13.6 points and 6.7 assists for the Nets and is one of the best stories in the NBA this season.

And then the Los Angeles native comes home and wins an All-Star contest.

Markkanen and Dinwiddie walking on the court together during the 2018 Skills Challenge.

"I cherish every moment to be able to step out here and play the game that I love and do it in front of my family," Dinwiddie said late Saturday night after the contest. "There was a time when they didn't think this was going to happen, so it's fun. Brooklyn gave me a chance to learn and grow. They believed in my abilities. I played last year a lot as a backup role, kind of going back and forth. Then, you know, once again, this situation, this opportunity doesn't come if Jeremy and D-Lo (Russell) don't get hurt.

"I think for Chicago it was just kind of another series of unfortunate events," Dinwiddie explained. "They were in win now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non guaranteed contract, and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win, which was understandable because they had D-Wade, who was on the edge of his career and Rondo, who was in the prime of his career, Jimmy (Butler) as well. So they weren't thinking about five years from now. They were thinking about trying to win a championship that year."

Then the Bulls were thinking about five years from now six months later. But in December 2016 after nine games with Windy City averaging 19.4 points, the Nets signed Dinwiddie.

It’s worked out for the Bulls, anyway.

They got their point guard of the future in Kris Dunn, and Markkanen showed all the skills Dinwiddie did Saturday night; just a second too late.

"I didn't think Lauri was going to give me more than one attempt at it," Dinwiddie said about making his closing three on his second attempt.

Markkanen lost the race when he stumbled making the pass inside what looked like a tire. It’s a smaller target than it appears. The ball bounced out on Markkanen’s first try.

"It’s a lot harder than it seems," said Markkanen. "I thought it was going to be super easy. It (the passing part) was kind of tough, especially in the warmups. Surprised me a little bit. Maybe I didn’t hold my follow through. I don’t know what happened; just missed it. I really thought that was going in. So I started going for the ball (to dribble down for the dunk) already. I missed (the pass), so I had to come back. That took a lot of time."

That left Markkanen trailing by a few steps. He brightened a bit when Dinwiddie missed his first three. But as Markkanen closed to take his shot, Dinwiddie’s second went in.

"It was so much fun to go against those guys," said Markkanen. "We had a good group of guys doing it. All good, despite the loss. Maybe I’ll get them next year."

Maybe even as he prepares for Sunday’s All-Star game? The kid has come a long way in a short time. Thinking he was seventh out of eight?

"I heard about that," said Markkanen. "Another chip on my shoulder."

That’s the All-Star Saturday Night spirit.

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