MARKKANEN HAS A LOT TO WORK ON AS HE LOOK TO JOIN THE RANKS OF THE NBA'S ELITE
Now that Lauri Markkanen has been given a clean bill of health from the extreme fatigue/accelerated heart beat issues that ended his second NBA season early, the focus turns to what he needs to work on to reach All-Star status. Markkanen certainly put up All-Star worthy numbers during an incredible month of February, averaging 26 points and 12.2 rebounds per game while leading the Bulls to their only non-losing month with a 5-5 record.
So, what will it take for Markkanen to be able to put up those kind of numbers on a consistent basis? In my recent one-on-one interview with Bulls' head coach Jim Boylen, he laid out a plan for the 21-year old Finland native to come back even better next season. Boylen joked he had a long list of areas for his 7-foot forward to work on, quickly adding he add a long list for all of his players.
"First of all he needs to get lost on the defensive end of the floor.... and the rebounding. When he gets a rebound off that board, it does something for him, spiritually. He feels he's in control of the game when he can bring it and make decisions. His ability to defend, for us to get a stop, and then him rebound the ball, I think is a huge part of his maturation, you know, his aura as a player."
It's no secret Markkanen's hot-streak coincided with Boylen's decision to open up the offense, giving the green light to any of his perimeter players who came up with a rebound or turnover to push the ball into the offensive end of the floor. Markkanen excelled at grabbing a defensive rebound and leading the Bulls back up the court, looking to shoot an open 3-point shot in transition or attack the basket with a numbers advantage. Markkanen's ability to handle the ball as a 7-footer is one of the many reasons the Bulls are excited about his chances to become a top 20 player, and he's also an underrated defensive rebounder.
Becoming more consistent in rim protection within the team's defensive scheme will be another area for growth for Markkanen in the coming seasons.
Next up on Boylen's wish list: better shot selection. "He has to recognize when he has an open three, and when he needs to shot fake and bounce it, or when he needs to drive it. He takes a lot of contested threes. I want him to take more drive-in situations, 'cause people are going to run him off the line. So recognize that, have discernment in the moment that I need to put this baby down and make another play or get to the rim."
Markkanen has one of the best 3-point shooting strokes you'll find for a player his size, which gives Boylen confidence he can improve on his career 36 percent success rate from beyond the arc with better shot recognition. During his breakout month of February, Markkanen did exactly what his coach would like to see on a more consistent basis, mixing in drives to the basket, mid-range pull-ups and post-ups against smaller defenders with his average of six 3-point attempts per game.
Here's item No. 3 on Boylen's to-do list for Markkanen this summer. "And then, he needs to work on going right. He goes left predominantly, he's working on going right, he's done it some. I've mentioned it after games, ‘Lauri went right today'. That sounds like a little thing, but think about your game, if you can go both ways efficiently, you add 50 percent to your game right there."
Markkanen isn't the only player in the NBA who favors driving in one direction, and teams will take advantage of that tendency to wall off attempts to get to the basket. Still, Markkanen's addition of the Dirk Nowitzki-style drag step, one leg fadeaway will help him counter defenders who overplay him to go to his left. And, Markkanen's work ethic will lead to more counter moves to whatever defenses throw at him in the future.
Boylen expects nothing less from Markkanen, sharing a story about his days as an assistant coach at Michigan State. "I worked for Jud Heathcote, he used to say if you can get 20 percent better in the summer, for four straight summers when you're in college, you're 80 percent better. I say the same thing to our guys. If you can improve the things you don't do well, and the best players have. You know, Magic (Johnson) got the roll hook and then he got the three ball, you know, right down the line, guys improve. So, he's got a lot of room for growth, Lauri does, but we're thankful for him, he's a good player."
Boylen had a big smile on his face when he made that last statement, no doubt imagining the possibilities for a 21 year old 7-footer with a versatile skill-set. With next year's All-Star weekend being held in Chicago, Markkanen is hoping to graduate from the Rising Stars game to the main event on Sunday, and there's no reason to think he can't make that kind of jump in year three of his NBA career.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
While the Bulls' front office puts its offseason plan together, it looks like the price tag for Chicago native Patrick Beverley in free agency might be significantly higher than what teams originally expected.
Beverley would be an ideal addition as the type of defense-first, tough-minded veteran John Paxson talked about during his season-ending news conference last week. His Norm Van Lier-style agitation has been on full display during the Clippers' 1st round series against the 2-time defending NBA champion Warriors.
Even though he's giving up about 10 inches to Kevin Durant, Beverley has frustrated the 2-time Finals MVP, forcing him into nine turnovers during Golden State's historic collapse in Game 2 Monday night. Beverley only scored 10 points in the game, but his relentless defensive work helped spark the Clippers to the biggest comeback in playoff history, rallying from 31 points down to win in Oakland, 135-131.
The 30-year old Beverley made just over $5 million dollars this past season, and might be forced to look for a new home with the Clippers committed to chasing big name free agents like Kawhi Leonard. Still, Doc Rivers praised Beverley after the Game 2 win, saying the 7-year veteran represents the "soul and spirit" of the franchise. Rivers will do all he can to keep Beverley in a Clippers' uniform and there will undoubtedly be a number of bidders looking to pry him loose. So, even though Beverley might be a perfect fit for the Bulls, negotiating a Chicago homecoming might be tougher than expected.
Another big development in that series Monday night; the Warriors losing starting center DeMarcus Cousins to a torn quad muscle suffered while he chased after a loose ball in the opening minutes. Initial reports indicate surgery will not be necessary, but in all likelihood, Cousins' season is over. The former All-Star was getting his first taste of post-season competition, and was just rounding into shape after completing his comeback from a ruptured Achilles tendon in January of 2018.
Cousins signed a one year, $5.3 million dollar contract for a chance to win a championship with Golden State, and even though he still might wind up with a ring, it wouldn't be nearly as satisfying. Cousins goes back into the free agent market this summer, and it's hard to project what his salary expectations should be coming off a second serious injury. He could wind up as a consolation prize for the Lakers if they're unable to swing a trade for Anthony Davis or he could head back to the Warriors on another low money, one year deal. In the short term, the Cousins' injury could have an impact on the Warriors' playoff run, since backup big men Andrew Bogut, Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell were embarrassed trying to defending the Clippers' high-energy center Montrezl Harrell, who scored 25 points in Game 2 on 9/9 shooting from the field, and also pulled down 10 rebounds.
It didn't take long for Luke Walton to find another NBA head coaching opportunity. Just three days after he was let go by the Lakers, Walton was hired by a Sacramento Kings' franchise that appears to be on the rise after suffering through more than a decade of futility. The Kings won 39 games this past season under Dave Joerger, but President of Basketball Operations Vlade Divac decided he wanted to make a coaching change anyway. Sacramento has drafted well in recent years, adding De'Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley, Willie Cauley-Stein and Harry Giles, plus Divac was able to acquire high-scoring wing players Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic in trades.
Walton enjoyed great success at Golden State, leading the Warriors to record 24-0 start when Steve Kerr was recuperating from off-season back surgery in 2015, but his record in three years with the Lakers was the same as Joerger's in Sacramento, 98-148. Divac says he and Walton share the same philosophies about basketball. Only time will tell if their partnership will lead to consistent playoff runs for the long-suffering franchise.