Sustainability of Lauri Markkanen’s hot start a key question for Bulls future

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Rob Schaefer
·7 min read
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Sustainability of Markkanen’s start a big question for Bulls originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Lauri Markkanen is on a scoring tear.

In the first 12 games of the 2020-21 season, the Bulls’ fourth-year forward is averaging 20.5 points (a would-be career-best) on 51.8/41.3/85 shooting splits, translating to a gaudy 63.1 percent effective field goal percentage and 66.3 percent true shooting. In his last eight, since returning from a stay on the COVID-19 protocol list for close contact: 22.1 points, 52.4/39.1/90.9 (66.2 percent true shooting). His last two contests have featured 30-plus point scoring outputs, matching his total of those from all of last year (50 games).

Playing under a new head coach and Billy Donovan, and in a prove-it season that is set to end with him hitting restricted free agency, it’s well-timed. Markkanen sees it as sustainable.

“I’m just confident going into every game,” he told reporters after Wednesday's shootaround ahead of a matchup with the Knicks. “The system, I like that we move a lot without the ball. The ball keeps moving, I think we get good looks, and it’s just easy to stay confident and knock down some shots.”

Notable that Markkanen immediately tied a question about his individual production into the Bulls’ overall construct. Part of that is being a team-first player and person, and it marks a continuation of him vocally praising Donovan’s schemes. The proof of that preference is in the pudding. Even casting statistics aside, and Markkanen's increased decisiveness from last season to this one stands out in a system that, in his case, has emphasized movement off screens and through cuts, and quick triggers on open triples. 

The results, of course, speak for themselves; shotmaking on its own can be variant. But playing empowered -- which, according to Markkanen, his teammates, and coaches, he is right now -- and in a healthier offensive context, overall -- the Bulls’ assist rate climbing into the top-10 of the league stands to benefit someone who has most of his buckets assisted upon -- increases the likelihood of that variance skewing positive.

But let’s bring the statistics back for a second, because they tell an interesting tale. Markkanen is scoring with markedly higher efficiency than last season through, again, 12 games. A limited sample. But his tendencies haven’t seismically shifted to this point:

Lauri Markkanen FGA (2019-20 vs. 2020-21)

 

2019-20 (50 games)

2020-21 (12 games)

% of FGA from 3

53.6%

54.8%

% of FGA in Restricted Area

29.8%

27.4%

% of 3PA Catch-and-Shoot*

95.3%

98.9%

% of Points from FTs

17.1%

13.8%

% of Points in Paint

36.9%

39.8%

% of FGM Assisted

73.3%

78.2%

Source: NBA.com

*2019-20: 302 of 317 // 2020-21: 91 of 92

So, what’s the difference between last year, when his catch-and-shoot 3-point frequency was often derided, and this one? Let’s start optimistic: Markkanen’s involvement is up across the board. After posting career-lows in shot attempts per game (11.8) and usage rate (21.1%) in 2019-20, both marks are on the come-up this season (14 and 23.4%, respectively). So is his minutes total, up to 31.1 per night after frustratingly sitting below the 30-minute threshold for most of last year. In that aforementioned eight-game, post-protocol stretch, Markkanen is averaging 15.5 shots per night, 33.4 minutes and logging 23.5 percent usage. If seasons were eight games long, the former two marks would be career-highs. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer and shot-taker.

Also: 41.3 percent of his 3s are going in. So are 76.1 percent of his restricted area attempts. His bump from 2.2 to 3.2 3s per made from last season to this one accounts for half of his roughly 6-point jump in scoring average. His touches -- 46 per game this season, 45.3 last year -- haven't drastically changed, but he's scoring more efficiently with them (0.451 points per touch vs. 0.325). Those are all good things. Needed things. Unequivocally so. It’s entirely possible that, still 23, Markkanen has blossomed into an efficient 20-plus-point per game scorer. 

But it’s early. Whether Markkanen acknowledges it publicly or not, the frame of context his entire fourth NBA season is how he fits into the Bulls’ long-term construct. That determination warrants more than a 12-game sample, however scalding.

And, it warrants a comprehensive evaluation of his game, especially for a ew front office regime that has professed to prioritize versatility and two-way ability. Measures of Markkanen’s rebounding, which one might think would tick up with increased assertiveness, look nearly identical to last season. Despite admittedly unicorn-ish flashes of facilitating, his 5.1 percent assist rate is second-lowest on the Bulls (to Daniel Gafford’s 5 percent) among regular rotation players. Despite that jump in restricted area field goal percentage, his rim frequency remains in the 19th percentile for his position, per Cleaning the Glass, which factors out garbage time. Markkanen’s foul-drawing -- a defining feature of his famous February 2019, when he averaged 8.6 charity stripe attempts per 100 possessions -- has been up and down, but ultimately, his 4.8 free throw attempts per 100 doesn’t hold a candle to his most assertive span, and his .238 free throw rate is his lowest since his rookie year. And, with a hat tip again to Cleaning the Glass: while lineups featuring Markkanen at center have scored at a rate of 119.8 points per 100 possessions, and sport a positive plus-2.4 net rating, a 117.5 defensive rating for those units -- plus recent woeful flashes against the Lakers and Trail Blazers -- is a reminder that that end of the floor remains an improvement area, as well.

To Markkanen’s credit, all of the above are points of focus. Asked after Wednesday morning shootaround if he views himself as more a shooter or a scorer, he responded with “a basketball player.”

It’s a pride thing, too,” Markkanen said of his defense, specifically citing his Monday and Wednesday matchups with Julius Randle. “I’ve been trying to get better at it, and it’s something that we work on every day with the coaches.” He repeated that sentiment of his facilitating and rebounding.

But lingering questions there, and the fickleness of his long-range shotmaking, present quite the conundrum. Remember: Markkanen entered this season a 35.6 percent 3-point shooter for his 170-game career, just about average. He’s had 10-20 game samples of hot shooting before, and a cold spell could be just around the corner. Remember December 2019? The splits from that 14-game sample to this season’s 12-gamer are eerily similar, and his 31 percent long-range shooting in his 36 other games tell the more holistic story of his third season.

Again, that could very well all be in the past. What that full picture looks like for Markkanen’s 2020-21 campaign remains to be seen. All he can do is continue to perform. For himself, if no one else.

“I’ve got something to prove just going off of last year. So it’s not the contract thing, I just feel like I need to prove to myself that I’m still the player that I can be,” Markkanen said. “That’s obviously motivating me, but at the same time the better I play it’s going to help the team, so that’s what I’m focusing on.’’

For the full scope of how reinvented Markkanen is, and what it means for his Bulls’ future, the cards are still falling. At the very least, things look rosy for the time being.

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