Five games last April didn’t necessarily change Fred Hoiberg’s mind, but they didn’t hurt.
The former Bulls coach watched Lauri Markkanen play the best basketball of his rookie year to close out the 2017-18 season. In that span, he averaged 19.4 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting a blistering 58 percent from three-point range in just 24 minutes per game.
But Hoiberg was seeing other things, specifically the mild-mannered Markkanen feeling comfortable enough in practice to start showing off his ball-handling and passing skills.
He was doing things 7-footers shouldn’t be allowed to do.
That’s why Hoiberg spent the summer tweaking the offense to make Markkanen more of the focus — tweaks Hoiberg never saw play out.
Markkanen hurt his right elbow early in camp, and Hoiberg was dismissed from his post Dec. 3, two days after Markkanen made his season debut.
Fast-forward to February, when Markkanen Euro-stepped into the All-Star break averaging 25.3 points and 12.5 rebounds in his last six games. His continued development is one of the Bulls’ five keys for the rest of the season.
According to Markkanen, the elbow is about “85 percent.’’ He’s attacking the boards so he can initiate the offense. And in the Rising Stars Game on Friday, he showed off his handles with some impressive dribbling at the top of the arc before launching a three.
“Yeah, I think it is kind of a secret because that’s how I grew up,’’ Markkanen said of his ball-handling skills. “I was always on the perimeter with the ball. Even in practice [with the Bulls], I fool around with [my ball-handling], and I’ve been doing that more and more. So I don’t think people know that about me.’’
That’s what makes the last 24 games of the season so important. Markkanen is starting to show not just star potential among the Bulls, but All-Star potential. If he can stay on that trajectory while showing off more playmaking skills, maybe the rebuild will start gaining traction with a pillar to build on.
Either way, as far as Markkanen and his handles are concerned, the secret is out.
1. Kris Dunn changing minds: The Sun-Times reported last month that the Bulls know they need an upgrade at point guard, whether it’s through the draft or free agency. The feeling is competition will push Dunn to show he’s either a backup or a starter. He can at least look to make his case in the last 24 games, as the search for consistency from the third-year player continues.
2. The suddenly not-so-small forward: The addition of Otto Porter Jr. might single-handedly be the reason the Bulls lose out in the Zion Williamson sweepstakes, with the veteran averaging 22.5 points in his four games with the Bulls. More important, the team is 2-2 since he was acquired from the Wizards. Porter also has ended the Bulls’ search for a starting small forward. How Porter and Markkanen work together down the stretch will carry weight into the offseason. Porter also has ended the Bulls’ search for a starting small forward. How he and Markkanen work together down the stretch will carry weight into the offseason.
3. Zach attack: LaVine’s goals for the remainder of the season are to stay healthy and within himself. LaVine’s last six games have been efficient (54 percent shooting from the field) and impressive (23.3 points per game). When LaVine feels the need to do too much, the offense takes steps backward.
4. Bubble players: The Bulls’ bench needs a serious upgrade, so it’s sink-or-swim time for bubble players Shaq Harrison, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Antonio Blakeney and Wayne Selden for spots on the team next season.