CHICAGO — Lauri Markkanen had a busy summer, and didn’t spend much of it in his new home. After becoming the No. 7 overall pick of the Chicago Bulls in June’s draft, one of the centerpieces of the blockbuster Jimmy Butler trade, he played in his first Summer League in Las Vegas and, much more notably, for Finland in the EuroBasket tournament. During those games, Twitter became little more than Bulls fans salivating and wondering if, just maybe, the Butler trade wasn’t so bad after all.
Even if Markkanen had been in Chicago with the rest of his teammates on the rebuilding Bulls, he wasn’t going to do much that didn’t involve staying in the gym.
“I’m not here for sightseeing,” Markkanen said at last month’s media day when asked what Chicago things he’s done so far.
That’s one thing to know about Markkanen. Another is that he’s absolutely not here for any preconceived notions about European players. He’s heard the Dirk Nowitzki comparison a million times, thank you very much. And he’s not soft, either.
“I know that stereotype is there, but I don’t include myself in that,” Markkanen said over the summer. “I’m not soft. I play hard. I see why everybody thinks it’s [going away] slowly, from players just coming from overseas and changing that.”
On paper, the 20-year-old Markkanen, who played his freshman season at Arizona before declaring the draft, is a perfect fit for his new team. A true seven-footer with shooting range is the ideal power forward to play in Fred Hoiberg’s uptempo offense, which he can now implement fully after the departures of Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo.
Everyone with any grasp on the league knows the new-look Bulls aren’t going to win very many games this year. That’s by design — they’re aiming for one of the top lottery spots and a shot at Michael Porter, Luka Doncic or Marvin Bagley in next year’s draft. What that means is their success this season will be judged on player development, and their young players will get plenty of opportunities to play through mistakes.
And he’s going to be asked to contribute right away, as Nikola Mirotic is out indefinitely following an altercation with Bobby Portis that left him hospitalized after suffering a concussion and fractures to his face. Portis is also facing a lengthy suspension, if not worse. He might even play a little center, which he can do because of his height, although he has to get stronger to guard centers. Throughout the preseason, the Bulls experimented with playing Markkanen next to Mirotic, to keep as many shooting threats on the floor as possible.
“This is the modern basketball now,” Mirotic said of his fit with his new teammate. “We can play all shooters. I’m very happy we have another European on this team.”
Unlike Markkanen, Mirotic opted not to play in EuroBasket this summer as he waited for his contract situation with the Bulls to resolve itself. But he, along with everyone else, watched Markkanen impress with Finland in the tournament. In six games, Markkanen averaged 19.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 47.8 percent from 3-point range while facing the toughest competition of his career thus far.
“It was a good experience for me just to play against grown men,” Markkanen said. “They’re all professionals.”
After sitting out the first three games of the Bulls’ preseason with back spasms, Markkanen played in their final three contests. He shot just 1-of-9 in his debut, but followed that up with 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting in a win over a Cleveland Cavaliers team that featured LeBron James on the floor for the first time. That turnaround was an encouraging sign for the Bulls, an indication that their new, youngest hope isn’t someone who will get down on himself after a bad shooting night.
“It’s confidence,” said Mirotic, who has had plenty of struggles of his own with that over the years. “It seems his confidence is very high. He was not shy. He was shooting that ball every time and it was good open looks. He already proved to us he can make those shots. We want him to shoot. This is his strength. And we want to use it.”
On this team, with expectations this low, Markkanen will have plenty of opportunities to do just that.