Lauri Markkanen has emerged as an early contender for the Most Improved Player award and could earn his first All-Star berth in Year 6 of his career. The Jazz are a surprising 10-6, and Markkanen is averaging a team-high 21.3 points per game.
How did all of this happen for a guy that the Bulls were openly shopping two summers ago on a team that was supposed to be rebuilding?
Markkanen is a much different player from the failed prospect that the Bulls acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade or the jumbo small forward for the Cavaliers last year.
He is a great example of how vital fit is for players — and he’s found the perfect one in Utah.
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Revisiting Lauri Markkanen’s problems with the Bulls
Markkanen is only playing a few minutes more than in his previous two stops, but his per-game averages are up across the board.
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That jump in scoring, rebounding and efficiency is the result of an obvious role change.
When Markkanen first arrived in Chicago, the Bulls built their offensive system around him to utilize his strengths. He played more of a point-forward role in his second year, looking poised for a breakout back then. In February of 2019, he averaged 26.0 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists over 10 games and had Bulls fans feeling excited about his future.
But something shifted in 2019-20. Coach Jim Boylen made him more of a spot-up shooter, taking touches and opportunities away from him.
«I had 80 touches per game the past two seasons, this season the touches dropped to 40,» Markkanen said in a Finnish interview, as translated by Josh Jeffares of On Tap Sports Net. «Don’t get me wrong, I had some plays drawn with me in mind, but it’s just different.
«When I spoke with Jim, we talked about how I should concentrate on getting rebounds and then leading the fast break. But it’s just really hard getting 40 defensive rebounds.»
Markkanen seemed to have his confidence rattled after that third-year shift. He went from being thought of as a future franchise cornerstone to a glorified role player.
«Confidence is everything,» Markkanen told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. «My third year in Chicago, it was hard for me mentally. … I was always trying to climb out of it.»
Boylen was fired after Markkanen’s third year, but new coach Billy Donovan used Markkanen in similar ways. He launched about half of his shots from 3-point range, and the rest came from attacking closeouts.
Breaking down Lauri Markkanen’s new role with the Jazz
Markkanen started diversifying his offense again when he was traded to the Cavs. He has made even more dramatic changes with the Jazz. Instead of being limited to spot-up shooting duties, he’s now given opportunities to cook with the ball.
The Utah version of Markkanen is a true three-level scorer, shooting roughly a third of his shots at the rim, another third from midrange and the final third from beyond the arc, per Cleaning the Glass. He is on fire on those midrange looks, hitting 51 percent of his attempts. That is the fifth-highest percentage among forwards this season.
Markkanen simply wasn’t allowed to take these types of midrange shots under Boylen in Chicago.
That Boylen-imposed restriction on Markkanen’s game made him extremely easy to defend. Opposing teams would put guards on him, knowing that if they closed out hard on him, he wouldn’t be allowed to take them into the post for jumpers. It took away everything that made a 7-footer with guard skills a special player.
The Jazz have given Markkanen the keys back to his game. He has more spacing and freedom as part of a 5-out system.
They are the perfect fit for Markkanen because of how often they get teams into the blender, collapsing the defense and pinging the ball around the perimeter for open shots. He’s been the beneficiary of a lot of easy looks off team ball movement.
The Jazz also thrive in transition, where they’re ranked in the top five in points added, per Cleaning the Glass, and on the offensive glass, where they’re ranked No. 4 in the league. The focus on those areas allows the Jazz to take advantage of Markkanen’s obvious strengths.
He’s able to grab-and-go on rebounds or outrun slower big men down the floor. He was never a great offensive rebounder, but he’s in position to crash the glass more because of the Jazz’s paired cutter system that has players cutting more in tandem with drives to the rim.
Markkanen’s jack-of-all-trades game didn’t really work at his previous stops. But in a 5-out system, a guy like him that has the size to exploit mismatches, the shooting to space the floor, the feel to make good cuts and the skill to score from anywhere is a cheat code for success.
The Bulls have to be disappointed that they never got this version of Markkanen. At least the Cavs got Donovan Mitchell in exchange for him, whereas the Bulls got a deep bench player in Derrick Jones Jr. and a middling first-round pick.
But Markkanen was never going to experience this level of success in Chicago. Sometimes players need a fresh start to rebuild confidence, and oftentimes they need a better fit.
The Jazz don’t have any traditional superstars on their roster, but they’ve turned Markkanen into a system star.