December 22, 2017, 4:32 pm
Trades at all levels are always hard to evaluate even if they look totally lopsided at the time they are executed (remember the Pau Gasol trade to the Lakers?). This summer, a couple blockbusters gave the majority of NBA fans the impression that Chicago traded away their best player for pennies on the dollar. Gar Forman and John Paxson got roasted on social media just like Kevin Pritchard did for trading away All-Star Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, both of which had underwhelming performances in Oklahoma last year. Funny how things look a few months after these blockbusters right? While Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine were somewhat known commodities, the media was calling the No. 7 pick Lauri Markkanen a “bust” before he even stepped on the court. After a very successful EuroBasket with Finland and an equally impressive start with the Bulls the rookie forward is now labeled as a future star. His one-and-done season in Arizona solidified him as a top prospect after he was selected as a third team All-American in AP, NBC Sports, USA Today and Sporting News while also earning first-team All-Pac 12 selection honors.
Coming into the draft there were numerous scouting reports for the Finnish product but to be honest with you, for anyone who watched Markkanen in college, his skill set hasn’t really changed. What was fortunate for his development was the unforeseen incident between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis that forced the Bulls to throw the young forward into the starting lineup from the very first day of the season. As a testament to his work ethic the rookie did not disappoint so let’s take a look at how and why he has been such a great fit in Chicago.
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Fred Hoiberg’s Dynamic Offense
Bulls fans might disagree but Fred Hoiberg is an underrated and innovative offensive coach. Unfortunately, his communication skills were challenged last year when he was put into a position to coach a team that wasn’t equipped with the right personnel to run his offense. With Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade running the show in Chicago Hoiberg couldn’t command the necessary respect in the locker room. Almost all of his star players, who are obviously very strong personalities, overlooked his coaching and retreated into their personal comfort zones. On top of that the front office admitted that it failed to address shooting needs so crucial to today’s game. Not surprisingly, Hoiberg’s preferred pace-and-space offensive philosophy was quickly thrown out of the window in favor of ISO plays for Butler and Wade. “We had two completely separate identities with our two groups last year,” Hoiberg noted. “With our first group we ran a lot of short pick and roll and tried to beat teams up in the paint and we did a pretty good job of that. The second group was more a spacing group.” A major overhaul on the Bulls roster this summer opened the path for a transition to a completely different offensive scheme that empowers shooters like Lauri Markkanen.
Since his Iowa State days, Hoiberg likes to run a fast-paced, volume three-point shooting system with plenty of cross screens and basket cuts. His offensive set is based on movement, spacing and attacking while creating multiple options, multiple reads and less rigidity. This kind of action creates constant spot up opportunities and Markkanen has been an instant hit as the Bulls needed someone to take (and make) a lot of threes. The cross-action from the left block to the right free-throw gives Markkanen the ability to catch a pass in a triple-threat position (shoot, pass or drive). The young forward is smart enough to read the defense, utilize screens, pump fake for a moment and calmly execute the long two. Take a look at the importance of a good screen set by Robin Lopez in this sequence. Denzel Valentine delivers a pass from the right ankle but it’s the hard fought screen set by RoLo that gives Markkanen the room to hit the easy jumper.
Charismatic mobility combined with high basketball IQ
Markkanen is not a superior athlete but his combination of size and ball handling skills made him one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft. His upside comes from outstanding size for an NBA power forward at 7’0” and 230 pounds. He is a fluid athlete with great coordination for his size, something very rare even at the NBA level. He has smooth mechanics, a soft touch and good balance off the catch and he really runs off of screens like a guard. That makes him lethal not only on pick-and-roll action but also as a shooter on the move out of screens, on pull-ups, on face-up jumpers and out of the post. Markkanen moves well without the ball when looking to spot up from the perimeter, usually a couple feet outside the three point line. He knows how to find the open spot on the arc to get off a good look and his release point is high enough to neutralize any potential contests.
Look at Robin Lopez trying to create offense with the dribble hand off while Markkanen sets a pin down for Justin Holiday. The Heat are able to read this play and Olynyk actually closes out really fast on the rookie big man but it’s simply too late.
It has been really surprising how teams allowed Markkanen a lot of room to operate on the perimeter, which resulted in him averaging 15.4 points and shooting 43 percent from three-point range in his first ten games of the season. What was also pretty evident in those games was how he enjoys going to the left, releasing his shot from the 45-degree ankle. Some regression was definitely expected as opponents have now started to put the rookie on top of their scouting report. And while his scoring and his percentages have diminished as the season progresses it’s very encouraging that he hasn’t lost his confidence, as evidenced by his 13 field goal attempts per game in the month of December.
On top of staying aggressive he is learning how to be patient and exploit defenders with his ability to put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket. These skills were specifically put on display when the Pelicans visited Chicago at the beginning of November. Markkanen forced Alvin Gentry to alternate between DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis on him but that didn’t stop the rookie from having back-to-back dunks on both of them. A pump fake and a drive to the basket by a seven footer is not something you see every day and Markkanen makes it seem effortless.
Can his body handle the wear and tear?
The Finnish product possesses a nice physique and added considerable muscle last year in college without losing any of his mobility. He isn’t afraid of contact, knows how to stay with his man and his NBA-ready body has translated into him being an above average defensive rebounder, second in rookies only to Ben Simmons with 7.7 rebounds per game. It’s well documented how Robin Lopez is one of the best, if not the best in the whole association, at boxing out. His presence in New York helped Kristaps Porzingis average a career high 7.3 rebounds per game in his rookie season. RoLo has had an equally important role in Markkanen’s rise as a top notch defensive rebounder even though there were some questions coming out of college as to whether he can be effective at the NBA level. Take a look at Lopez boxing out rebound machine Kenneth Faried as Markkanen is left all alone to pick up the rebound.
The rookie recently sat out with back spasms while back in November he nursed quad tendinitis in his right leg and I hope that the Bulls are smart enough to understand how important it will be to avoid overworking him. His minutes have slowly diminished from 32.2 back in October to 30.1 in November to 28.7 in December and owners should expect this tread to continue for the rest of the season with more healthy bodies joining the squad next year (Zach LaVine).
Markkanen has good instincts on defense and has shown that he can read the action but he is not a rim protector and it’s really difficult to imagine him becoming an elite shot blocker due to his average wingspan and inability to jump high from a standing position. His weak side defense is also not there yet since at times he just looks a step too slow while the lateral quickness is not elite. Here is a very slow reaction where he’s responsible for covering the weak side and providing help defense that leads to an easy uncontested three from the corner by Thaddeus Young.
The future of the league is very bright with unicorns like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns and of course Anthony Davis. These players create tremendous disadvantages on the defensive end as they are literally unguardable . The rookie has a long ways to go to be considered a lock down defender but he is capable of containing these big men and had a great showing against KP at the beginning of December, forcing him to shoot 10-of-25 overall and 1-of-7 from the three point line while also blocking a couple of his shots.
Defending the pick-and-roll has produced mixed results. He does a great job of stepping out and hedging ball screens, a situation he probably needs to get accustomed to in today’s pick-and-roll heavy NBA. On the other side he really struggles defensively when teams go small against him or throw more complex offensive plays to him. Here are the Pelicans bringing their twin towers up high on a pick-and-roll with Jrue Holiday. Markkanen gets confused as he opts to switch instead of staying with AD, leading to an uncontested alley-oop.
Offensive game needs to expand
Markkanen was asked to carry a heavy offensive burden at the beginning of the season when the Bulls did not have a clear number one scoring option. And while Fred Hoiberg has encouraged his rookie to shoot the ball without constraints there is the danger of some bad habits developing long term. His percentages are below 40 percent for the season and that probably won’t change as long as he is shooting more threes than two-point field goals (177 vs. 168 so far). The Finnish product very often finds himself in favorable matchups due to his size and the Bulls must learn to identify those and throw him the ball more often in the paint. Here’s a good defender like Marvin Williams fouling Markkanen before he even gets the pass as he understands that he has no chance at stopping him if that happens.
The Bulls are running the fewest amount of ISOs and post ups in the league but with such a tool in their arsenal they should be taking advantage of mismatches and throw the ball to him more often like they did last year with Taj Gibson. The rookie is an exceptional free throw shooter (shooting an elite 85%) which could only help his case for more touches in the post and more trips to the line. Markkanen is also not creating much on is own, with 75% of his made field goals coming off assists and I wouldn’t expect this to change anytime soon due to the type of offense Fred Hoiberg is running. On the other side, he better be prepared to start facing double teams and it will be interesting to see if he is able to maintain a low turnover rate (1.3 per game).
Sell High Candidate?
The Bulls’ pacing and up tempo style is totally entertaining. Plenty of touches for all and a contagious unselfish play that has played a major role in Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic developing exceptional on-court chemistry after an ugly brawl just before the beginning of the season. Lauri Markkanen meanwhile has made Bulls’ fans eager to embrace this ball club again and the future looks very bright. As far as his fantasy value goes I’m pretty sure that he got snubbed in dynasty leagues that drafted before the EuroBasket in September, getting selected behind guys like Dennis Smith, Frank Ntilikina, Jonathan Isaac and Malik Monk. I wouldn’t try to trade him in these types of leagues since he has proven that he belongs and he can only become better in the future. I’m inclined to do the opposite in redraft leagues if an opportunity to acquire a stellar top-50 asset arises. His usage will most likely go down once Zach LaVine returns and while the swingman’s presence might create more open shots for him I wouldn’t expect a drastic improvement to his percentages.
As always, thank you for reading and please don’ t hesitate to let us know about an international prospect that you would want to learn more about in the next few weeks. I hope you and your families have a warm and safe holiday season and enjoy one of the happiest days of the year for me, the NBA Christmas special on Monday!