How Lauri Markkanen had ticket punched to NBA phenom status

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It’s funny how things happen. Heading into this season, the Bulls probably figured they could slowly bring along top draft pick Lauri Markkanen.

The 20-year-old power forward from Finland could settle in next to coach Fred Hoiberg on the bench and watch and learn from Nikola Mirotic, another European player with a similar skill set, and Bobby Portis, a third-year player who could teach him a thing or two about toughness.

More than likely, the Bulls were hoping Markkanen could just give them 20 minutes a night on a team with a crowded frontcourt and no urgency to win.

Then just days before the season was to start, Portis punched Mirotic in the face during a fight in practice, breaking bones in Mirotic’s face and knocking him out of the lineup for an undisclosed time. Portis was suspended eight games.

The incident has literally punched the young rookie’s ticket to NBA phenom status.

Since being thrust into the starting lineup, Markkanen, who is less than six months removed from being a teenager, has been nothing short of spectacular. Just nine games into the season, it seems Markkanen is re-writing rookie milestones on a nightly basis.

Prior to the NBA Draft, most scouting reports on Markkanen began with his shooting ability and ended with his defensive liability. As it turns out, he’s been better than advertised on defense, and it’s everything in between — rebounding, movement without the ball, basketball IQ — that has everyone talking.

It might be the reason the Bulls moved up nine spots in their blockbuster draft-day trade with Minnesota to take him with the No. 7 selection.

Of the players selected ahead of Markkanen, only Jayson Tatum (No. 3 to the Celtics) is outperforming him. Markkanen has a player efficiency rating of 16.19 to Tatum’s 17.69.

Among all rookies playing at least 20 minutes per game, Markkanen ranks fourth in PER behind Atlanta’s John Collins (20.58), Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons (20.09) and Tatum. Collins was drafted 19th by the Hawks. Simmons sat out last year with a foot injury.

.@GregAnthony50 and @steve21smith break down @MarkkanenLauri‘s catch ‘n shoot vs the @cavs. More in-game analysis tonight on #PlayersOnly! pic.twitter.com/ikAH3HPvKA — NBA TV (@NBATV) November 7, 2017

With his deft shooting touch and ability to stretch the floor, Markkanen often draws comparisons to the Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis and the Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki.

Markkanen is averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists and is shooting .435 from the field and .381 from beyond the arc in 32 minutes of play.

Porzingis, who also broke into the league at 20, played about four minutes less per game than Markkanen. Here are his stats from his rookie season: 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, .421 from the field and .333 from three-point. Markkanen tops him in every category.

Nowitzki played sparingly his first year. Here are his second-year numbers at age 21: 17.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, .461 from the field and .379 from three in 35.8 minutes per game.

That’s a pretty impressive comparison for Markkanen to a player who’s a surefire hall of famer and another who’s averaging 30 points per game in his third season.

Here’s one notable instance in which Lauri Markkanen got to the rim (via @3ball_): he received the ball behind the arc and promptly drove past Anthony Davis for a dunk. https://t.co/CbRcCLWywg pic.twitter.com/urx9vxC9qm — Positive Residual (@presidual) November 9, 2017

Perhaps the best barometer for Markkanen’s early success, though, is how he compares to Mirotic, the player who was going to start ahead of him.

Mirotic had his best season with the Bulls in 2015-16 at age 24 when he played 24.9 minutes per game. These were his numbers: 11.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, .407 from the field and .390 from three. For his career, Mirotic is shooting .409 from the field and .350 from beyond the arc.

A lot could change between now and the end of the season for Markkanen, but so far it seems he and the Bulls have made the most of an unfortunate set of circumstances.

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