NBA AM: Lauri Markkanen Represents Hope In Chicago

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Chicago Bulls rookie forward Lauri Markkanen scored 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds in the team’s Tuesday night loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. To be clear, this wasn’t a monster or record setting box score by any stretch, as Markkanen ranked fourth in the game in scoring and third in rebounding.

But the rookie’s play through three games this season could be an early indicator that Chicago truly has a building block of the future already on the depth chart. Markkanen is currently averaging 16.3 points and 9.3 rebounds on 45 percent shooting from three-point range.

What makes Markkanen’s early play even more impressive is the fact the rebuilding Bulls have played Toronto, San Antonio and Cleveland to begin the season. All three franchises have been perennial playoff participants with each expected to win 50-plus games this season.

Markkanen’s play received rave reviews from four-time league MVP LeBron James who admitted the rookie has been on his radar for quite some time.

“Very confident,” James said of Markkanen according to ESPN. “Watched him a lot at Arizona. Watched him a lot. He wore my shoe a couple times … he wore my retro Brons a couple times. I like that. I had to stay up very late to watch those Arizona games. A very confident kid, shoot the heck out of the ball. He’s going to continue to get better. The best thing about it is he’s getting an opportunity. If he makes mistakes, he can learn on the fly, but he’s going to play a lot. He’s good. It seems like he’s learning. He’s a good player.”

The fact the Bulls are finding out how well Markkanen is transitioning to the pro level at this stage of the season is due to long chain of events leading to the opportunity, otherwise he might be buried deep on the bench.

Chicago is without shooting guard Zach LaVine as he recovers from knee surgery. LaVine is expected to be the team’s leading scorer once fully healthy. Secondly, forwards Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis are both out of the lineup due to their altercation near the beginning of the season. Mirotic is out indefinitely after being punched and suffering multiple facial fractures in the scuffle, while Portis is serving an eight game suspension for his role in the fracas.

Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg believes Markkanen has the tools to be special.

“He’s going to be a heckuva player, man,” Hoiberg said. “Just to see him out there battling the way he did against this type of competition on the road says a lot about him.”

Since 2005, a span of 13 seasons, the Bulls have only missed the playoffs twice. In the early 2010s, the team was routinely considered to be a title contender, but injuries to former league MVP Derrick Rose and former All-Star Joakim Noah dampened those hopes. Both players now don other uniforms. Add in the development, emergence and subsequent departure of All-Star Jimmy Butler during this timeframe and its clear why the Bulls are currently facing a long-term rebuild.

For now, the team’s hopes of rejoining the ranks relevancy hinge on Markkanen continuing to hone his skills, LaVine’s return to pre-injury form and the development of young backcourt members Jerian Grant, Kris Dunn and Denzel Valentine.

This isn’t about projecting Markannen’s future trajectory. It’s too early to say if the talented forward will ever flirt with an All-Star selection. But the rookie has maximized his opportunity early on and it will be hard to relegate him back to the bench even when Mirotic and/or Portis eventually return to the lineup.