Soft-spoken, 7-foot Euros don’t usually bring a lot of splash to a popularity contest.
That’s the reality Lauri Markkanen and the Bulls face when the Rookie of the Year ballots go out next month.
Stats, impact and value in the locker room are all considerations for the award, but highlight hype carries the day in most cases.
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That’s the very reason Markkanen will lose out to the 76ers’ Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell.
Markkanen entered All-Star Weekend fourth in rookie scoring (15.3 points per game), second in rebounding (7.7) and second in three-pointers made per game (2.2).
If there was a redraft of what took place in June, Mitchell likely would go first, and there’d be a debate between the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Markkanen for Nos. 2 and 3. (Simmons is eligible for the rookie award but was drafted in 2016.)
Markkanen went seventh overall, and the Bulls acquired him in the draft-night trade with the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler. Not only has Markkanen become the focus of Fred Hoiberg’s offense, but he has shown an ability to score from almost anywhere on the floor.
There’s a reason he was chosen to play in the Rising Stars Game on Friday and compete in the Skills Challenge on Saturday. There’s little the 20-year-old can’t do, but even his teammates initially were surprised by that.
“I’m surprised with his athletic ability,’’ Bulls guard Kris Dunn said. “You wouldn’t think he could rise the way he can. He has a lot of athletic ability. He’s a phenomenal shooter. What makes him good is his confidence. To have confidence already as a rookie and be able to step up in big moments … to do what he did at Madison Square Garden, you’re not going to find too many people who can do that off the rip being a rookie.’’
It was that Jan. 10 victory in New York that opened a lot more eyes. Opposing scouts and coaches knew exactly what Markkanen was doing this season, but scoring 33 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the Big Apple made a statement.
But rather than strut out of MSG after that performance, Markkanen seemed unimpressed with his showing. In fact, he carries himself as though this entire season has been somewhat — ho-hum — expected.
Markkanen finally admitted this week that he had some rookie nerves early on, but he did a good job hiding them.
“It took me awhile to actually not be like, ‘Am I really here?’ and actually start competing,’’ Markkanen said. “It took awhile to realize that. I think it comes from practice. We go hard every day, and I just think, ‘Do whatever you do every day.’ I think that’s the way to go.’’
His coach isn’t about to do anything to change that mindset.
Hoiberg has thrown a lot at Markkanen, and while his talent is one thing, it’s his makeup that has impressed the entire staff.
“He’s so even for a guy that’s 20 years old and the first year in the league, really been over here for a year and a half in the states,’’ Hoiberg said. “He’s a rock. His overall confidence has been very impressive. The way that he can bounce back from a tough performance and go out and perform at a high level the next game, that’s not easy to do when you’re a rookie in this league and you can’t buy a drink yet.
“He certainly has the makeup to be a guy that takes part in that [All-Star] weekend a lot in the future.’’
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