Most NBA fans were incredibly skeptical of the Chicago Bulls after they selected Arizona big man Lauri Markkanen with the No. 7 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Although he had shown some success as a stretch big in college, Markkanen struggled immensely as an individual defender, and the Bulls had just given up Jimmy Butler as part of a deal that gave them the rights to draft a player that needed a lot of work.
In his first two seasons with the Bulls, however, Markkanen has shown the kind of potential of a future offensive star. He averaged over 15 points per game in his rookie campaign, and last season he upped the scoring average to 18.7 points per game while also averaging nine rebounds.
Markkanen and shooting guard Zach LaVine are at the very heart of Chicago’s future. The Bulls are a team hoping to make a run at the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference, and they need their young stars to take the next step in their development.
We have already covered the things that LaVine needs to work on, but here are three improvements that Markkanen must make during this offseason:
There is no question that Markkanen needs to make significant physical gains moving forward. He put on some added muscle last season, which seemed to serve him well in terms of his ability to finish through contact.
Unfortunately, Markkanen has also missed a number of games in his professional career, and players with his size and length–Kristaps Porzingis is a good comparison–tend to be more injury prone. The Bulls are a more potent scoring team and a better rebounding team with him on the floor, but first he has to remain healthy.
Similarly, Markkanen seemed to lose out on shots and touches late in games because he was often on the bench. Markkanen averaged just three shots in the fourth quarter of games, a number that is far too low for one of Chicago’s best scorers.
The Bulls need Markkanen to be in excellent physical shape, because they cannot continue to hope that LaVine bails them out in crunch time. The onus will be on guys like Markkanen to be fresh and take on a greater share of the offensive burden in crunch time.
2. Better passer from the post
The Bulls had one of the best offensive ratings in basketball when Markkanen, LaVine and Otto Porter Jr. all shared the floor. Given that all three players can shoot the three and make plays at the rim, it makes sense that they would click.
However, Porter’s arrival and LaVine’s emergence as a legitimate top scoring guard could make Markkanen’s post touches that much more vital. That means he needs to find a way to be more of a playmaker, as well as a scorer.
Markkanen only averaged 1.2 assists per game last season. However, the Bulls have more floor spacing and offensive versatility this season, and Markkanen could give the team yet another element of explosiveness if he improves his court vision.
1. Defense: Footwork and communication
As is the case with LaVine, the biggest improvements to Markkanen’s game must come on the defensive side of the ball.
Markkanen posted an even worse defensive rating in his sophomore season than he did in his rookie year, and opponents absolutely torched him inside the paint.
LaVine was (rightfully) criticized for his poor work hedging screens and playing off the ball, but he was also an easy target because Chicago’s bigs–including Markkanen–were not adequate at switching and communicating. Both of these things have the potential to be fixed, especially in Jim Boylen’s second season at the helm of the Bulls.
Markkanen has the length and athleticism to be a solid defender. But he needs to be more communicative against ball screens, and work tirelessly on his footwork in the post.