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It can’t be the campaign Lauri Markkanen was expecting when he and the Bulls fell short of an agreement to extend his rookie contract last December, setting up a prove-it fourth season.
A torrid start in which he posted career high scoring marks and shooting splits across his first 14 games. Multiple extended absences -- one due to close contact to a COVID-19 positive teammate, the other due to a shoulder sprain -- adding up to 20 missed games before the All-Star break. Then, a second-half swoon followed by a demotion to a reserve role after the Bulls added Nikola Vučević and Daniel Theis at the trade deadline -- an active day on which Markkanen’s name was embroiled in trade talks.
“Up and down in that way,” Markkanen told reporters after Monday’s shootaround when asked to summarize his season. “Start of the season I got the COVID thing so I couldn’t play, and then I felt like I was playing well for whatever, a month-and-a-half period before I got hurt, kind of found my rhythm there, and then you sit out… And then we got a little bit different team now (after the deadline) and playing [small forward], so it’s been a lot of new stuff.
“But like every year you have your good moments and you have your bad stuff happening. I think I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can, and learn new stuff on the fly.”
With eight games left in the regular season, the Bulls insist their focus remains on nabbing the final spot in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament. As of Monday, they trail the red-hot Washington Wizards by three games for the tenth seed.
But for fans and observers anxious to see how Artūras Karnišovas and Co. continue to reshape this underachieving roster, it’s difficult to not look beyond. Markkanen faces an uncertain offseason in that regard. He’s set for restricted free agency this summer, meaning the Bulls will have the ability to match any offer sheet he signs if they so choose. But Markkanen has fast fallen from potential cornerstone to, on many nights, an afterthought.
“I haven’t thought about that at all. I let all that kind of stuff happen its own way after the season,” Markkanen said when asked if he thinks this season could be his last with the Bulls. “I can’t focus on that. What do we got? Eight games left? Just try and make this play-in spot, and that’s my focus right now. Like I said, I’m going to give it all I have, and I’m not thinking about the future right now. I can’t control that, so I don’t know.’’
That echoes Markkanen’s sentiments throughout this season, from the run-up to last offseason’s extension negotiation deadline, to when it passed without an agreement, to his hot start, to now.
What’s changed is his role. Markkanen evaded when asked if he’s dead set on a starting situation during his upcoming free agency, but held firm to the belief he expressed when he was first made a reserve.
“I still feel that way (that I’m a starter in this league). I said it back when my role changed, I went on the second unit. I said that then and I still stand by it,” he said. “I understand the situation right now, and like I said I’m not thinking about the future even if it’s whatever exit meeting, whenever that is. But I’m not thinking about that. Just going day-by-day, and I still believe I’m a starter and nothing has changed in that way.’’
Such a role is no longer promised in Chicago. Billy Donovan tried the Markkanen-Vučević frontcourt tandem for one game in the starting lineup, a defensively disastrous 120-104 defeat at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs on March 26. Since, Vučević, an unquestioned fixture in the franchise’s plans, has predominantly played alongside Thad Young and Theis (who’s started the last 10 games), while Markkanen has averaged 22.5 minutes, many of which have come out of position at backup small forward.
“It’s different,” Markkanen said of playing small forward. “I feel like on the offensive end it’s pretty much the same. I can kind of do the same kind of stuff. On the defensive end, it’s just guarding the smaller guys most of the time… I feel good about playing there. Obviously not my natural position, but I don’t mind it.”
Speaking with reporters, Markkanen didn’t let on any of the above eating at him. He remains focused on the play-in push, which the Bulls have explicitly and implicitly set as a goal throughout the season.
But the idea that this stretch of games could be his last for the franchise that drafted him is inescapable. Asked if he’ll cherish the final span of this season, Markkanen pointed to the unpredictable nature of the past calendar year as evidence to not take anything for granted.
“I feel like this year especially kind of taught you never know what’s going to happen,” Markkanen said. “No matter what happens I’m going to enjoy these last games of the year and just go out there and compete, and do it with and for the teammates I have, I’m on the floor with. That’s what I’m trying to do. You never know what’s going to happen, but you just try to enjoy every moment.’’
Whether those moments are his last in Chicago remains to be seen.
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