Despite the fact that there was a stretch where Lauri Markkanen looked gassed in the 2017-18 season, the Chicago Bulls feel confident that they’ve unearthed a potential building block in the 7-foot stretch four.
The Arizona product and native of Finland was NBA All-Rookie first-team last year after averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds a night despite playing just 29.7 minutes per game. That translates to 18.4 points and 9.1 rebounds over the course of 36 minutes per night, and Markkanen is changing his body in a way that makes that a potential reality this summer.
“Everybody has been saying I’m bigger, but I don’t know about all that,” Markkanen told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune this week. “I just know I feel good.
“I’ve put on about 14 pounds. In general, I feel stronger. Hopefully, I can keep this weight up and play with it because I feel it will help my game.”
Of course, developing into a star in the NBA is never as simple as finding the right workout plan. The game is as nuanced as ever and requires an attention to detail that can’t really be honed in the weight room.
However, when you look at Markkanen’s numbers closely from last season, it’s easy to see where the added bulk might help.
As a modern power forward, the easy part was using him as a screener (be it in the pick and roll or otherwise) to force a switch and create mismatches where he could catch-and-shoot, back guards down or take slower bigs off the dribble. The end result was that 46.5 percent of his field goal attempts came from beyond the three-point line and 24.4 percent came from inside three feet from the rim.
In those instances, he showed the ability to knock down the open jumper (36.5 percent shooter from beyond the arc) and finish around the rim (67.6 percent on field goals inside three feet). Where he struggled was the areas in between.
The mid-range game is dying in the NBA and justifiably so. It’s the highest-risk, lowest-reward shot in basketball, but the Bulls still need Markkanen to shoot better from 3-16 feet than this.
As a 7-footer who may be pushed inside a little more often now that Jabari Parker is here and Fred Hoiberg seems interested in experimenting with some smaller lineups, it’s still imperative that Markkanen can anchor anywhere from 8-12 feet from the rim and at least provide the potential for offense.
Everybody wants to see Markkanen improve his game offensively but nobody necessarily wants to see it changed significantly. Simply adding the threat of being able to face up or hit a turnaround with his back to the basket more consistently should help him considerably and the added bulk to anchor against some of the bigs in the NBA who are both strong and athletic should be helpful.
Of course, the biggest potential area of impact would be defensive. That’s where Markkanen needs to make the biggest strides.
So long as he’s not losing perimeter mobility, a stronger Markkanen should be able to withstand the demands of banging around inside with fellow 7-footers on that end of the floor. He’ll hold onto position more effectively and ideally become a better rebounder because of it.
He’ll probably never develop into a great defender or even a good defender, but if he’s even capable the value he provides on the offensive end has the potential to turn him into an All-Star.
In the grand scheme of things, 14 pounds in an offseason might not be what defines the emerging star. But it can certainly help Markkanen improve and that’s important because the Bulls desperately need him to develop into the sort of talent that big-name free agents might want to play with if there’s any chance for this rebuild to be successful.