Some players are shooters by the numbers. Make enough shots and your credentials become unimpeachable, gradually changing impressions around the league. In certain cases, however, one can see the shooter before the percentage. Behind the fickle business of makes and misses is an obvious talent with ready-made mechanics, shrouded by circumstances beyond their control. This is where we find Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen—a 20-year-old in something of a slump, promising beyond what his numbers imply.
Let's lay them out plainly: Markkanen is currently averaging 14.3 points per game while shooting 39.2% from the field and 34.3% from three.These marks are not at all unusual for a rookie, though they're something less than heartening for a player billed as a shooter. This, after all, is Markkanen's strength. It's why he was drafted at No. 7 overall. It's where his career will be made.
Give it time. Markkanen isn't shooting well yet, but his form is quick and streamlined—about as efficient in movement as a 7-footer's shot could be. If one stretched out the dimensions involved in Klay Thompson's jumper, it would bear some structural and rhythmic similarity to what Markkanen is working with:
The success of Markkanen's shot deserves no such kind comparison. Over the past five games, Chicago's starting power forward launched 39 three-pointers and made just 11 (28.2%). The makes come and go. Inconsistency is accepted as a fact of life when rookies are involved, and Markkanen is no exception. Yet part of the reason that rookies tend to be inconsistent: The best ones (and thus those likely to have the highest usage) tend to take incredibly difficult shots because their lottery teams can't properly create them.
Life is never easy for a shooter on a bad offense, and the Bulls are the worst in the league by a significant margin. Despite the players' best intentions, there isn't enough talent to provide a real infrastructure. Playmaking is in woefully short supply; even the nominal point guards on the roster have erratic handles and a narrow field of view, the combination of which makes it difficult to generate any kind of in-possession momentum. Developing actions die on the vine because the next player in sequence isn't able to keep things going.
Rarely do the Bulls impose. Most damning of all is how little they put opposing defenses into real rotation; no matter how much they cut or move the ball, most developments can be contained on an individual basis. Those momentary openings that create panic in a defense are disturbingly (if not surprisingly) infrequent.
Markkanen does what he can. He pops into open spaces, slides along the arc into better passing angles, and floats around screens to create opportunities. Given his height and how quickly he can fire up a shot, it doesn't take much. Among bigs, only Marreese Speights and Ryan Anderson attempt more threes per minute. (Can we pause for a moment to admire that Speights, long one of the NBA's hungriest shooters, is cranking up a ridiculous, league-leading 14.3 three-point attempts per 36 minutes for the Magic? Does his appetite know no bounds?)
He pops into open spaces, slides along the arc to create better passing angles, and floats around screens to create opportunities. Given his height and how quickly he can fire up a shot, it doesn't take much. Among bigs, only Marreese Speights and Ryan Anderson attempt more threes per minute.
That frequency is in itself a positive indicator. With the way the NBA has evolved, it's not enough for a shooting big to merely stretch the floor. Close-outs to the three-point line are more aggressive than ever; the spread of quicker, more athletic lineups have empowered defenses to cover ground like never before, putting every potential shooter to the test. If a big has a slow-winding catapult form, a defender might already be in his face by the time he lets his shot loose.
Markkanen isn't immune to this dynamic, though his form is compact enough and his release point high enough to neutralize a lot of potential contests. He's helped, too, by the fact that he doesn't dawdle. There's little hesitation on the catch, one way or the other. If Markkanen intends to shoot, he shoots. If he wants to redirect the offense elsewhere, he does.
And perhaps most promising of all: Markkanen has proven capable of counter driving against a closing defender. These are smooth, confident moves:
Young players are often guilty of making exaggerated shot fakes in these sorts of situations, frittering away the fraction of a second that could make all the difference. Markkanen seems to understand already how powerful even glancing at the rim can be. Given his height, defenders are forced to really commit to the prospect of blocking his shot if they're to have any chance of getting there. To feign lining up a three calls them to (over)action, all without unnecessary movement. Hell, sometimes even catching the ball beyond the arc can bring a defender flying towards him.
This is where the play of some similar players—Phoenix's Dragan Bender, for example—might stall. Plenty of bigs can sell a fake. What's compelling about Markkanen is the way he bursts toward the rim afterward—something we don't often see from players his size. A purely functional handle gets him from Point A to Point B without futzing around, and his length and touch deliver the rest.
When a 7-footer has the foundation of skills needed to make those moves, they're able to move and stretch beyond what a defender can reasonably cover. Pau Gasol actually does a reasonable job of hanging with Markkanen from the three-point line in on this sequence, through fakes and all. It just doesn't matter—a lefty up-and-under extends just out of Gasol's reach:
It should come as little surprise, all things considered, that the Bulls have played some of their best (least bad?) basketball with Markkanen on the floor. Even in a slump, he adds helpful layers to Chicago's operations. The percentages aren't there yet. The classic rookie miscues—from botching his defensive positioning to whiffing on screens—are very much a part of the package. This is what potential looks like. It comes in fits and starts and rarely in ways you'd expect, broaching that precious space between what a player does and what he might be capable of.