e is good enough with the ball in his hands to create basic plays for himself out of the pick-and-roll and handoffs. It’s culminated in him scoring a combined 66 points on 71 pick-and-roll and handoff possessions this season — plays usually reserved for guards and playmaking forwards — which is good enough for him to be above average in both categories.
A lot of those possessions have ended in midrange pull-ups, but there aren’t many 7-footers who can reject a ball screen, take a couple of dribbles with their weak hand and create separation with a step back against a perimeter defender like DeMarre Carroll:
Markkanen has also flashed some skill in isolation, albeit it on a much smaller sample size. While he’s only scored 12 points on 22 isolation possessions — ranking him in the 5.1 percentile — plays like this show off his versatility:
Markkanen is unlikely to create a large amount of his points in isolation and as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls, but his ability to handle the ball opens up a world of possibilities for the Bulls. They can do simple things like have a guard set a screen on Markkanen’s defender, paving the way for him to pull up if a defender chooses to go underneath the screen, or move into the post on a switch. The Bulls can do the same with whomever they’re playing at center in the hopes of getting the opposing team’s least mobile defender to switch onto Markkanen. From there, he can put them on an island while his teammates space the floor for him to attack in isolation.
Markkanen is a long way from being able to do those things consistently against NBA defenders, but he at least has the potential to get his shot off in a variety of ways. Time is on his side, too, considering he’s 20 years old and the Bulls’ rebuild is only getting started.
A better defender than expected
Markkanen’s limitations as a defender were made clear heading into the draft. As much of a factor as his size can be around the basket, he lacks the length to be a traditional rim protector and the strength to battle with opposing big men in the post and on the boards. Markkanen has been a better defensive rebounder than expected — being teammates with Robin Lopez certainly helps — but he’s only averaging 0.6 blocks per game in a Bulls uniform.
More concerning is the fact that opponents are shooting 62.0 percent within six feet of the basket when being guarded by Markkanen. It’s not as bad as Nikola Jokic, who is allowing opponents to shoot 66.5 percent in those situations, but it puts Markkanen on the same page as the likes of Nikola Vucevic, Frank Kaminsky, Greg Monroe and Kelly Olynyk.
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While that can be problematic, it doesn’t mean Markkanen is incapable of making an impact on defense. The hope is he’ll make up for his limitations as a defender by becoming the type of player who can keep up with smaller players on the perimeter, sort of like this:
Curry isn’t the only guard Markkanen has successfully slowed down in isolation this season. He did something similar to Jrue Holiday in the Bulls’ loss to the Pelicans on Jan. 22, once in the first overtime:
Then again in the second overtime:
According to NBA.com, opponents are averaging 0.86 points per isolation possession when being guarded by Markkanen, ranking him in the 55.3 percentile. It hasn’t manifested in the Bulls being a better defensive team with him on the court, but, as Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg explained earlier in the season, it’s an encouraging sign for Markkanen’s future.
"He's shown a great ability to move his feet, to stay in front of his man with great anticipation," Hoiberg said about Markkanen. "He's a smart defender, he understands rotations. It's not easy to grasp, it's such a different concept than the college game with all the rotations that happens at the NBA level. The big thing with Lauri is his IQ and it's helping him on the defensive end of the floor."
The agility Markkanen displayed on those plays helps him in other areas, too. If the Bulls don’t want him to switch, he can pressure ball handlers in pick-and-rolls as a help defender and recover in time to prevent his assignment from scoring an easy basket.
As for his IQ, it shows in the rotations he makes as a help defender. This one in particular prevented Kemba Walker, who was in the midst of a career night with 47 points, from spoiling the Bulls’ fourth-quarter comeback on Nov. 17:
There have been some rookie mistakes along the way, but Markkanen’s outlook as a defender is far brighter now than it was this time last year. As long as he continues at this rate, Markkanen has the potential to be a plus defender in the NBA.
What to watch for next
Because his jump shot is his greatest asset, the Bulls need Markkanen to become a consistent threat from the perimeter. He’s certainly had his moments this season — the most memorable being when he hit eight 3-pointers en route to a career-high 33 points against Porzingis and the Knicks at Madison Square Garden — but he’s made 29.1 percent of his 3-point attempts in the 22 games since. If Markkanen can finish the season strong by snapping out of his shooting slump, it would set him up well for a breakout sophomore season.
Markkanen’s defense is equally important. A 7-footer who can make 3-pointers in volume on one end and hold his own on the other is an incredible value piece in today’s NBA, especially if he proves he can log more minutes at center. Whereas his weaknesses as a defender means he’s best suited as a power forward for now, lineups with Markkanen at the five have the potential to be dynamic enough on both ends to gives opposing teams problems.
Regardless of whether those improvements are enough for Markkanen to become an All-Star, it gives the Bulls an exciting young player who should be a huge part of their future success.