With Lauri Markkanen, the Chicago Bulls got more than they expected

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Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America

Entering the 2017-18 NBA season, Chicago Bulls rookie forward Lauri Markkanen represented the bumbling incompetence of the team’s front office. It wasn’t his fault, of course, the former Arizona Wildcat didn’t ask Bulls to send Jimmy Butler and the 16th overall pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for the right to draft him (Chicago also got springy guard Zach LaVine and brick-laying lottery pick Kris Dunn in the swap). Coming out of the draft, Markkanen was projected to be little more than a top-notch shooter; a nice secondary player but not a franchise changing talent. Through his first 42 games playing elite pro ball, it’s safe to say that Markkanen has somewhat exceeded those expectations.

I’m going to show you two stat lines here:

Player 1: 15.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.5 BPG, 55.5% TS, 16 PER, .089 WS/48

Player 2: 14.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.9 BPG, 51.8% TS, 17.7 PER, .102 WS/48

The first line represents Markkanen’s season as of Wednesday while the second is Kristaps Porzingis’ rookie season with the New York Knicks. Like Markkanen, Porzingis didn’t receive the warmest reception when the Knicks selected him fourth overall in the 2015 Draft. In fact, it was quite the opposite; Knicks fans greeted the seven-foot Lithuanian with jeers the moment his name left NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s mouth. Fast forward two seasons, and he is the franchise centerpiece for one of the most well-known teams in the world.

Like Porzingis, Markkanen has shown flashes of brilliance in his first year with the Bulls. He helps space the floor with his sweet shooting stroke–a necessity for a team that starts Kris Dunn on purpose–but he has exhibited a level of versatility that even the most sycophantic Bulls fan couldn’t have expected.

In addition to his buttery shooting form, Markkanen can put the ball on the floor and get around less nimble defenders. He has also acquitted himself well on the defensive end, which was another supposed weakness entering the pros. Depending on which advanced metric you use, Markkanen either benefits (1.1 defensive win shares) or hampers (-1.1 defensive box plus minus) the Bulls’ D.

Now, this isn’t to say that the man dubbed “The Finnisher” will assuredly blossom into a superstar. As the minuscule block numbers show (0.5 for a seven-footer is laughable), Markkanen isn’t much of a rim protector. While he’s been better than expected on defense, he can still get cooked on the perimeter. His stats, while impressive, haven’t drastically improved the team. In fact, the team struggles more with Markkanen on the floor; the Bulls get outscored by 7.4 points per 100 possessions when he plays compared to just 4.3 when he sits. Of course, Chicago is just a really bad team in general, but Markkanen’s play hasn’t made them any better…yet.

Roughly seven months after the draft, Markkanen is still an accurate representation of the Bulls. The team has played much better than anyone expected, myself included (whether that’s good or bad is up for debate). For Chicago to return to prominence in the NBA, they need to get a franchise-changing talent in the 2018 draft (maybe Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter, or Trae Young). If the Bulls succeed in landing a potential new superstar–a big if given the current “braintrust”–that player will have a good potential secondary star in Markkanen waiting, and that’s more than what anyone in Chicago expected.

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