Lauri Markkanen is close to a return, and more importantly his debut

SHARE Lauri Markkanen is close to a return, and more importantly his debut
SHARE Lauri Markkanen is close to a return, and more importantly his debut

Was this Lauri Markkanen’s first diva moment?

“My back is getting better,’’ the first-round pick said of his lingering back injury Wednesday night, “but to be honest, I don’t want to say anything more as far as when I’ll be able to play.

“I just really don’t want to talk about it anymore.’’

Welcome to the NBA, rook, where every storyline is a drama and every injury goes under the microscope.

Markkanen, who has been sidelined for almost a week with back spasms and missed the Bulls’ first two preseason games, wasn’t dismissive in his reply. Actually, it was a kind response from the soft-spoken 7-footer.

Maybe he was frustrated by the injury. But what’s apparent with Markkanen is that he doesn’t get caught up in the usual pressures most young players face.

“Of course I would like to play every game, but it’s just how things happen,’’ Markkanen said. “I’m doing my treatment and trying to get out there.’’

The good news for the Bulls is there was progress in the last 48 hours.

Markkanen said he ran the floor for the first time Wednesday, and did so pain-free. Thursday was a big day for him, with the Bulls holding a special practice in which select teammates came in to test Markkanen on the court.

Coach Fred Hoiberg said the big man is doubtful for the preseason home opener Friday against the Bucks, but Sunday seems like a logical return date as long as there are no setbacks.

Then it’s time to see what the second-most important piece of the rebuild — yes, Markkanen is behind Zach LaVine — looks like against NBA competition.

“I think I’m going to be good,’’ Markkanen said of understanding the playbook despite not playing yet. “I’m watching film and asking a lot of questions from the coaches, so I’m trying to be as ready as I can be when I get out there. I don’t want to have to worry about thinking too much. Just play.’’

Markkanen is well aware of that “just play’’ mentality, especially after the summer he had.

Playing for Finland in EuroBasket 2017, the 20-year-old raised his stock, at least in the overseas circuit. In six games, Markkanen led Finland in scoring (19.5 points per game) and rebounding (5.7) before the team lost to Italy in the round of 16.

It was a big showcase for the youngster, who shared the tournament stage with Goran Dragic, Dennis Schroder, Kristaps Porzingis and the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc.

So Markkanen left EuroBasket feeling a bit confident.

“Definitely it helped with my confidence, just playing against strong players like that,’’ Markkanen said. “It was going against the best [Euros] in the game.’’

Now his attention turns to facing the best players on the planet.

The Bulls open the regular season in Toronto, host the Spurs and then travel to Cleveland, so Markkanen will find out quickly if his strong summer will carry into a strong start to his rookie season.

“I hear people make comparisons of my game, but I’m trying to be my own player and do whatever I can to help the team,’’ Markkanen said. “Euro[Basket] helped me a lot, but of course I haven’t played here yet.

“I hope it translates.’’

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.



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