The way Lauri Markkanen sees things, success doesn’t typically come without struggle.
So while his four seasons with the Chicago Bulls definitely produced some highs, they also featured trying times. And all those experiences, both high and low, helped form who he is today.
“I have very good memories from Chicago playing-wise and off the court---my kids being born there, growing as a family in the city of Chicago and playing with one of the most historic franchises. Obviously, there were definitely hard times as well, missing the playoffs four years straight,” Markkanen said in a phone conversation with NBC Sports Chicago that will also appear on the Bulls Talk podcast. “But I think now it’s just easy to say I needed that kind of experience to fight through that kind of stuff and get here where I am today.”
Where Markkanen is today is one of the early-season candidates for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, with even some talk of his first potential All-Star Game experience should his exploits continue for the Utah Jazz. Markkanen will try to showcase those exploits when he faces his former team on Monday night in Salt Lake City.
“It’s always fun to see those guys and be competitive on the floor,” Markkanen said. “We’re all the same way. We can hang around and joke off the court. But when the game starts, we’re going to be going at it.”
Truth is, not many familiar faces remain from Markkanen’s four-season run with the Bulls. There’s Zach LaVine, who came with Markkanen to Chicago on the 2017 draft-night trade that sent Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves and started the former regime’s full rebuild.
There’s Patrick Williams, the new managerial regime’s first draft pick, who complimented Markkanen on Sunday for helping him transition to the NBA. There’s Billy Donovan and the coaching staff, one of three head coaches Markkanen played for in four turbulent seasons with the Bulls.
This also obviously isn’t the first time Markkanen has faced his former team, which traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a three-team deal that netted the Bulls Derrick Jones Jr. and a lottery-protected, first-round pick from the Portland Trail Blazers. This trade occurred by Markkanen’s request in 2021.
“You always hope to play for one team for your whole career. But it just didn’t work out,” said Markkanen, who grew disenchanted with his role and lack of a contract extension in December 2020. “I think I’ve definitely got better from those years, just mentality-wise and physically being in a better place. . . . I’m smarter and better now.”
The numbers agree.
In his first season with the Jazz, who acquired him in the blockbuster Donovan Mitchell trade, Markkanen is averaging 21.7 points---3 points higher than his best average with the Bulls---8.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists. He’s shooting 52.1 percent, well above his career-best 48 percent.
And he’s scoring at all three levels, including a career-best 4.3 trips to the free-throw line each game.
“It was tough. I didn’t really expect (the trade). I was just getting ready for EuroBasket games (with Finland) and it caught me off guard,” Markkanen said. “I was a little shocked at first because I thought we found a home in Cleveland. But it’s the NBA and you never know what’s going to happen. Once time went by, we were able to look at it in different way and see the way you can work with it. It’s been good.
“Obviously, we have a great staff and we have a good system in place and everybody is buying into that system. Everybody is really playing unselfish basketball and I think that’s where I can be at my best. I’ve been getting a ton of open looks with just us moving the ball and creating the extra passes. Not saying that didn’t happen in the other places, but I think it’s just our personnel fits the system and everything is just clicking.”
In February 2019 under Jim Boylen, Markkanen averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists over 10 games. He also shot 40.2 percent from 3-point range for Donovan in 2020-21. Asked if he feels this is his best professional stretch, Markkanen didn’t pause.
“I think I’ve had some good stretches. But I feel the best for sure,” he said. “Getting a couple years under my belt and physically getting there, I’m in the right place at the right time. Being here right now is a good spot for me.”
Coincidentally, Markkanen almost landed in Utah for college, picking Arizona over the Utes and North Carolina but liking his official visit enough that he recalled a trip to Park City, Utah, during this conversation.
When he arrived for training camp this time, he did so flush off a strong performance for Finland at the EuroBasket tournament. Markkanen is the face of the Finnish national team and always takes that commitment seriously.
But his showing at this year’s tournament only furthered the confidence he rediscovered after the Bulls traded him to the Cavaliers.
“EuroBasket was really competitive this year. A lot of NBA guys went back and a lot of good teams,” Markkanen said. “Just knowing that you’re able to do that stuff against those guys over there, you can translate that confidence and that level of play and try to bring it over here. It was really important for me not only to represent the country but to play at that level.”
Markkanen has stayed at that level. Though the Jazz have cooled off with a four-game losing streak entering Monday night, they have been one of the league’s early-season surprise stories.
Markkanen credited his teammates and first-year coach Will Hardy for a big part of his success, success that could lead to an All-Star berth.
“I’ve said it before, even when I was in Chicago, that All Star has always been my goal. But I know everything comes with winning. That’s our main focus right now,” Markkanen said. “We’ve been slipping a little bit the last couple games, so we need to pick that back up. If either of those things (All-Star or Most Improved) happen, it’s great. But we’re going day-by-day.”
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