How Bulls Coach Billy Donovan Plans to Get Lauri Markkanen Back on Track

How Billy Donovan plans to get Markkanen back on track originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Fitting for a player still viewed as a franchise pillar, Lauri Markkanen was the second Bull to speak to reporters on the first day of media week -- preceded only by Zach LaVine.

He fielded questions about purgatorial extension talks (he wants one), regression in his third season (after a good deal of introspection, he’s ready to put that behind him) and what he expects from his fourth (a bounceback). Artūras Karnišovas later jumped at the chance to prop Markkanen up, saying, “we like Lauri and we would like him to be part of this organization for a long time.”

And Billy Donovan -- not an executive or agent, but the team’s head coach -- stayed anchored to scheming in discussing what’s ahead for Markkanen. It sounds like he’s taken special attention through film-watching and conversations with Markkanen himself to get to the bottom of his regression.

I’ve had some conversations with Lauri,” Donovan told reporters. “I do think with a young player as gifted offensively as Lauri is, it does take time for the league to kind of catch up to a player. I think as people have seen him, and certainly he’s had to battle some injuries, he like Wendell (Carter Jr.) has to find his identity offensively.

“Everybody knows he can put the ball on the floor and he can shoot it. But can we try to create some situations for him where he becomes a little more difficult to guard. I think it’s two-fold. I think one, it’s him understanding how to attack size mismatches. The other part of it is the team having recognition in transition of when he’s open to find him because when you close to him, he has enough skill to go by you. 

“And then I think the other part for him is him getting into the teeth of the defense when he does drive it, have the physicality to finish at the basket, get fouled, get to the free throw line. I think Lauri has really worked hard this offseason. I think he’s going to continue to evolve and get better. What I do not want him to be from watching film is what I would say a one-dimensional, catch-and-shoot forward. I think those guys become too easy to guard.”

If that isn’t music to Bulls fans -- and Markkanen’s -- ears, I don’t know what is. In that infamous 2019-20 season when Markkanen posted career lows across the board, he also not so coincidentally posted career highs in spot-up frequency (31.4%) and catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game (6.0, which amounted for more than half of his field goal attempts per game). 

These aren’t bad ways to feature Markkanen. He’s a gifted long-range shooter for his size and bumping his 3-point rate jibes with where the league is trending. But there’s more to his game that wasn’t empowered last season -- he’s a solid defensive rebounder, possesses potential as a ball-handler, especially on the fastbreak, and is otherwise exceptionally nimble on the offensive end.

“When he even came into the league as a freshman, I remember telling our frontcourt guys at OKC his rookie year that this guy could really, really shoot,” Donovan said. “A couple times we closed out short and he drained a couple 3s. The next thing you know we’re flying at him and he’s going by you.”

Too often last year, though, Markkanen felt on the outside looking in of the Bulls’ offense -- waiting for plays to flow to him rather than receiving the ball in rhythm or on the move.

“Just getting me into actions, coming off ball screens, and he talked about posting up right away,” Markkanen said of his early communication with Donovan during the Bulls’ voluntary minicamp in September. “Just being involved. He kind of asked me where do I want the ball and what do I want to do with it.”

Forgive a number dump building off that bite: Markkanen’s 1.8 post-up touches per game in 2018-19 slipped to 0.6 in 2019-20. His 3.1 pick-and-roll roll-man possessions per game dipped to 2.3. His drives dropped from 6.0 to 4.1. Though his volume and efficiency off screens marginally increased, his overall touches plummeted from 66.2 per night to 45.3 between his second and third seasons. His usage sank to a level roughly matching his rookie season. His average shot attempts fell well below that first-year line.

“We’ve been working a lot, just putting some offense in,” Markkanen on media week’s opening day. “I like the movement we’ve been having and I feel like guys are in different spots. We’ve been playing a lot, and I feel like everybody is involved, so I’m excited.

“The biggest thing I've been looking at is how to stay more active and be on the move on the floor,” he later added.

Injuries also can’t be ignored in the discussion around Markkanen’s regression. Early in the 2019-20 campaign, he struggled with an oblique ailment that could very well have at least somewhat contributed to his shooting woes. Then, an ankle sprain befell him in early January. Then, a stress reaction in his pelvis, which cost him 15 games between late January and early March. The season was suspended four games after his return.

In fairness to him, he has battled a lot of injuries. He has missed time,” Donovan said. “It’s hard when you’re in and out to get your rhythm and timing back. Those things can be challenging. I think he’s a very unique player. We’ve got to help him. He’s got to help himself. But I think he’s really open minded because he can do a lot of different things.”

Donovan even listed Markkanen as someone he views as a prominent ball-handler on the team, along with Coby White, Tomáš Satoranský and others. 

He also cited Danilo Gallinari, whom he coached for one season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, as an example for Markkanen to strive towards, primarily because of Gallinari’s ability to abuse mismatches and get to the foul line. Markkanen struggled in both areas last season, taking just 4.9 free throw attempts per 100 possessions (Gallinari averaged 7.9).

Gallinari was also as prolific as anyone in the league working off of screens last season -- generating 1.31 points per possession (96th percentile) on 0.8 such possessions per game. And he registered in the 77th percentile on spot-ups and 82nd percentile on post-ups en route to averaging 18.7 points on 62.1 percent true shooting.

An example for Markkanen to follow? Perhaps. Much of Gallinari’s prolificity can be at least somewhat attributed to strong point guard play aiding him. Depending on White’s development -- Markkanen said he’s been “a lot more vocal” as of late -- lead playmaker could still be a question-mark for the Bulls entering the campaign.

In fact, a good deal of question marks surround the Bulls with opening night three weeks away -- media week optimism aside. But it’s evident that Markkanen and Donovan are willing to get creative to make sure the Finnish forward isn’t one by season’s end.

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