Artūras Karnišovas: Bulls' Lauri Markkanen has met preseason expectations

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Karnišovas: Markkanen has met preseason expectations originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

When the Bulls and Lauri Markkanen's camp failed to agree on a long-term extension before the start of the 2020-21 season, the stakes of Markkanen's fourth NBA season were set.

In the final year of his rookie contract before entering restricted free agency in the 2021 offseason, Markkanen would be playing for his future in Chicago, a city in which he's been clear about wanting to stay for the long haul.

Out of the gate, Markkanen's play rose to the occasion. In his first four games, Markkanen averaged 17.3 points and 6.8 rebounds, making half of his field goal attempts and nearly 48 percent of his 3s. Then, after a seven-game spell on the COVID-19 protocol list for close contact with a teammate that tested positive for the virus, Markkanen returned to post double-digit scoring outings in nine of his next 10 games, moving his season-long scoring average through 14 appearances to a career-high 19.1 points on career-best 51.4 percent field goal shooting, 39.6 percent from deep.

"Lauri was cooking before he got hurt," Bulls executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas said on a Zoom call with reporters before a March 1 matchup with the Denver Nuggets.

Yes, a common theme recurred on Feb. 5, when Markkanen sprained his right shoulder during a game against the Orlando Magic; he hasn't played in the Bulls' 11 games since and won't return before the All-Star break. Entering the Nuggets matchup, the Bulls are 7-4 in those contests and have climbed into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

But Karnišovas made clear his evaluation of Markkanen hasn't been swayed by that stretch. Though Markkanen will end the first half of the season having played 14 games and missed 20, Karnišovas said Markkanen has met preseason expectations in the time he's seen the floor.

"The things that we met before the season and set the expectations for Lauri, I think he met," Karnišovas said. "Before he got hurt, he was 19 (points per game) and shooting 52 percent from the floor and 40 from the 3. I think that’s what he can do on a daily basis. We can’t wait for him to come back and help this team win games."

With Bulls players' eyes on the prize of a playoff spot, and both Billy Donovan and Karnišovas saying all the right things about looking to compete now, that can't come soon enough.

"Right now, we’re focused on winning games, because the separation between fourth and 10th place (in the East) is a game-and-a-half," Karnišovas said. "This group is doing pretty well, and hopefully we can get Lauri back and [Otto Porter Jr.] and see what we can do with this team."

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