What can you really learn from the very first few games of a player’s NBA career?
Early-season performances from rookies, both good and bad, are obviously studded with caveats, as the adjustment from college ball and even preseason NBA basketball is a steep one. There will be inconsistency and rocky beginnings, and it’s all so early that the predictive value of the few available data points is small. That said, the first few games of someone’s career are not nothing, and certain trends tell you more than others. As Ben Falk said on yesterday’s Lowe Post, it’s a good sign if a rookie has that unquantifiable yet recognizable “good feel for the game,” while struggling to shoot the ball doesn’t mean much at the start of a player’s career. It’s entirely too early to tell if Finnish Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen will be any good, but he looks the part so far.
Markkanen was Chicago’s big return in the Jimmy Butler trade, and it was easy to mock him, since he’s a lanky 20-year-old from Finland and Jimmy Butler is a three-time All-Star. If he had floundered in the league, he would have been a perfect symbol of the rot at the core of the Bulls’ front office. But Markkanen’s been very good, and as a result of Bobby Portis breaking Nikola Mirotic’s face, he’s more or less been handed the keys to the offense. The Bulls may be butt, Markkanen is not.
The Finn has averaged 16.3 points (with 45.5 percent three-point shooting) and 9.3 rebounds per game through three games, all of which came against very good teams. He’s playing 34 minutes a night, which is second on the team, and is only committing two fouls per game. Rookie big men tend to have outlandish foul numbers, and while Markkanen is letting opposing power forwards feast, he’s at least not fouling them, which is a good indicator that he’s up to NBA speed already. He’s comfortable navigating the perimeter and getting hit shots, and he’s the first rookie to hit 10 threes in his first three games.
As this reel of the 10 triples shows, the Bulls love to run variations of the same play to get him open, where Markkanen will set a pick for the point guard, slip through, then settle back toward the top of the key, open thanks to a pick from the center. He’s hit most of his threes at the top of the key and he shows a good sense of timing when he trails the break and pops open shots with a nice quick release. Being seven feet tall helps too.
Markkanen doesn’t have an assist to his name yet, and though he’s thrown a few good passes, he is very clearly not Ben Simmons. That’s fine, because he’s already been good enough that he should usurp the starting power forward spot from Portis or Mirotic and keep himself in heavy rotation throughout the year. The Bulls are talent barren right now, and Markkanen is their best building block. The Bulls have to like his confidence, which also impressed LeBron James:
“Very confident,” James said of Markkanen. “Watched him a lot at Arizona. Watched him a lot. He wore my shoe a couple times ... he wore my retro Brons a couple times. I like that. I had to stay up very late to watch those Arizona games. A very confident kid, shoot the heck out of the ball. He’s going to continue to get better. The best thing about it is he’s getting an opportunity. If he makes mistakes, he can learn on the fly, but he’s going to play a lot. He’s good. It seems like he’s learning. He’s a good player.”
The Bulls will be a clogged toilet this season, but provided Mirotic and Portis don’t bury him in the rotation, Markkanen might be the only thing that makes this team worth watching.