Why Lauri Markkanen's rise is instructive for Bulls, Patrick Williams

Why Markkanen's rise is instructive for Bulls, Williams originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Through the Utah Jazz’s unexpected 10-6 start, Lauri Markkanen is averaging 21.3 points and 8.4 rebounds on 52.3 percent shooting.

On Wednesday in New Orleans, Chicago Bulls forward Patrick Williams takes averages of 9.3 points and 3.7 rebounds into a matchup against the Pelicans.

Williams, obviously, is not Markkanen. They play different games and own different roles for their respective teams. They are bound merely by the same position and the 51 games they played together for the 2020-21 Bulls.

But Markkanen’s breakout season, which features early talk of All-Star and Most Improved Player candidacy, could serve as a reminder about the varying paces of player development. Which could have ramifications for the Bulls and Williams.

Markkanen averaged 18.7 points and a career-high nine rebounds in 52 games for a 2018-19 Bulls team on the front end of a massive rebuilding project. So it’s not like this season is a total surprise.

Still, Markkanen, who has four calendar years and almost three times the NBA experience as the 21-year-old Williams, is another example of what the right role and situation can do for a young player.

Markkanen declined the Bulls’ rookie contract extension offer before the 2020-21 season and then endured a challenging season that led to him requesting a change of scenery. After a solid season in Cleveland, Markkanen landed in the Donovan Mitchell trade, one that appears to be a win-win for the Jazz and Cavaliers.

Williams, meanwhile, will be eligible for his rookie contract extension next offseason with plenty less evidence and production than Markkanen produced. Some of that is beyond Williams’ control. He played in only 17 regular-season games last season because a Mitchell Robinson flagrant foul forced him to tear wrist ligaments and undergo surgery. He’s also the fourth offensive option — at best — behind DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević.

But Williams also has played too passively at times, prompting the coaching staff to repeatedly remind him how playing aggressively and impacting games doesn’t always require scoring.

It’s why next offseason’s negotiations will be intriguing. Although, even if no extension is reached, the Bulls would still be able to match any offer Williams received in 2024 restricted free agency.

That’s where Markkanen’s case does produce a comp. The current managerial regime inherited Markkanen and valued him enough to at least offer an extension, albeit one that Markkanen deemed not lucrative enough.

The following season bothered Markkanen enough that he wanted to be elsewhere, and he landed in Cleveland in the three-team trade that netted the Bulls a lottery-protected first-round pick from Portland plus Derrick Jones Jr.

All signs point to the franchise doing everything it can to mold Williams into the impactful, two-way talent that management envisioned when using the fourth overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft on him. But what price will that translate to next offseason? And, if no deal is reached, how will Williams and the Bulls handle his imminent restricted free agency throughout 2023-24?

Those are speculative questions for another day. For now, Williams still represents the first significant player transaction of Artūras Karnišovas’ regime. Structurally, Karnišovas emphasized player development in his introductory news conference and promptly built out that staff.

There’s a lot invested in Williams. And Markkanen’s current success could serve as a cautionary tale regarding Williams’ slow start.

This isn’t to say Williams is untouchable. (And, no, the rumor that the Bulls didn’t land Rudy Gobert because they refused to include Williams in trade talks isn’t true.) It’s to say that the Bulls need to do everything possible to develop Williams because his physicality and athleticism remain apparent.

And players develop at different speeds.

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