Markkanen excelled at the eye test with smooth stroke, impressive athleticism
Third in a series
During most every late-season news conference, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or vice president of basketball operations John Paxson carved out time to plug Lauri Markkanen's milestones.
It's true Markkanen delivered a promising rookie season, but let's not get carried away.
Markkanen was the first Bulls rookie since Elton Brand to record 1,000 points and 500 rebounds. But Brand averaged 20 and 10 as a rookie in 1999-2000. Markkanen produced 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds this season.
Markkanen reached 100 made 3-pointers faster than any player in NBA history. By the end of the season, he ranked third among 2017-18 rookies in 3-point baskets, trailing Utah's Donovan Mitchell and the Lakers' Kyle Kuzma.
On the NBA's list of 3-pointers made in a rookie season, Markkanen is tied for 12th with Brandon Jennings and O.J. Mayo. Matt Maloney and Juan Carlos Navarro are among players who made more.
The 7-foot Finland native probably excelled the most in the eye test. He finished well at the rim, showed some impressive athleticism and shot the 3-pointer with confidence.
He made New York Knicks phenom Kristaps Porzingis look slow and awkward a few times, lighting up Manhattan for 33 points in his first game at Madison Square Garden. There were some occasions when Markkanen was off-target much of the night and still delivered a clutch basket in the fourth quarter.
Yes, there was plenty to like about his rookie performance. Last season, he probably would have won rookie of the year with ease. Coming into the NBA with a strong class, though, he isn't a lock to make all-rookie first-team with Mitchell, Kuzma, Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Dennis Smith Jr. and others in the mix.
"He is a cornerstone," Paxson said when the season ended. "We loved him in the draft, obviously, but we didn't know what we had. I'm incredibly impressed with the poise he plays with. He rarely gets outside of himself."
Obviously, the Bulls are hoping Markkanen's 3-point percentage will rise from this season's .362 and he'll add more to his game than the basic strategy of fire away from 3 or put it on the floor if the defense plays tight. With fewer commitments to Finland's national team this summer, the Bulls hope Markkanen will spend more time refining his skills and getting stronger.
"He needs to find areas on the floor inside the 3-point line where he can really be effective," Paxson said. "He's going to need to tighten up his handle, where he can maybe take one or two quick dribbles and pullup. His footwork in isolation situations. With his size and his ability to shoot the ball, he should be able to get in areas on the floor where he can really dominate."
The Bulls struggled at times to get Markkanen involved offensively and that will continue to be a challenge as he, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn try to develop their chemistry.
The Bulls appeared to stumble across an effective strategy by keeping two outside-shooting big men on the floor, making it difficult for opponents to match up. Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic were the most successful pairing, but with Mirotic in New Orleans, the Bulls will want to see Markkanen and Portis on the floor together more next season.
There were plenty of highs and lows to the Bulls season. Markkanen, 20, became a father in early February. Through it all, he kept the demeanor of a 7th-grader on a field trip, always smiling, joking and upbeat.
Markkanen acts like someone who spent his life preparing to play in the NBA, and he must have been highly motivated to spend hours shooting in his driveway in Jyvaskyla, where the weather is surely dicier than here.
By the numbers, Markkanen had a solid rookie season. Factor in the intangibles and it's easy to see why the Bulls feel good about his future.