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A bigger, stronger Lauri Markkanen figures to make the Bulls better

What are we to call this new, bulkier, more-rugged Lauri Markkanen?

The Nordic Nasty?

The Firmer Finn?

OK, we’re probably going a little overboard with the before-and-after imagery here. It’s not as if the Bulls forward has morphed from a very tall broomstick into a professional wrestler. He gained 17 pounds in the offseason, going from 223 pounds to 240. He looks bigger. He looks stronger. You probably wouldn’t want to get in his way if he were driving to the basket.

A bulked-up Lauri Markkanen talks with the media Monday at the Bulls' practice facility. (Sun-Times photo)

A bulked-up Lauri Markkanen talks with the media Monday at the Bulls' practice facility. (Sun-Times photo)

That’s huge.

Markkanen was gifted enough as a rookie last season that he could use his 7-foot frame to shoot and jump over opponents. But 223 pounds over 7 feet is still spread thin. Sort of like the fabric would be on a long cot.

The Bulls say the added weight will help him back down smaller players on switches and keep defenders on his hip when he drives to the basket.

“And then obviously on the defensive end is where it will help him the most — being able to play more positions more comfortably because of the added strength,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said.

The Bulls’ first official practice is Tuesday, but the players have been working together for several weeks at the Advocate Center.

“Lauri looks great, man,’’ teammate Zach LaVine said. “He got a little bit stronger. Jumper still looks pretty as all get-out. Still the funniest dude in the world.’’

No joke: Markkanen averaged 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds in 68 games last season. He’s going to be better this season. And he’s only 21.

“I just want him to keep building on what he did,’’ LaVine said. “He had such a great rookie year with the opportunity he had. Sky’s the limit for him, man. He’s one of those players that can do a lot of big things. Lauri’s off the charts.’’

The NBA is filled with very strong people. Being 7 foot is nice, especially if you can shoot three-pointers the way Markkanen can. But smaller, stronger defenders were able to put a forearm in his back and stop him from backing them down last season. The idea behind the 17 pounds of new muscle is that opponents will have to back down when he backs them down.

Ground will be given when he has the ball. It will not be given when his opponent does. At least that’s the idea.

“I’m not going to get backed down as easily,’’ he said. “I might be able to back down [defenders]. Last year, I wasn’t able to do that.’’

When he arrived for camp as a rookie last season, he was coming off the rigors of playing for the Finnish national team. There had been time only for basketball. There was no time for things that might have helped him be a better player, such as weightlifting.

“I feel fresh,’’ he said at Bulls media day Monday. “We’re playing here every day almost. I’ve been obviously going up and down the court, but it’s different. I’ve been able to work on my body and actually be healthy. I feel good.’’

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He did not back down Monday when asked if being an All-Star were a goal.

“Why not?’’ he said. “That’s eventually my individual goal, to be an All-Star, but I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I could definitely set that as a goal for me on the personal side, but I’m not worried about the All-Star break right now. I’m just trying to get to work [Tuesday] and hopefully get some more wins this year than last year.’’

That’s not asking too much. The Bulls went 27-55 in Year 1 of their rebuild. The hope had been for Markkanen, LaVine and Kris Dunn to begin to jell together, but knee rehab prevented LaVine from making his Bulls debut until mid-January. Dunn and Markkanen also dealt with injuries. If the three can stay healthy, we’ll start to get a much better idea of the future of the franchise.

Hoiberg is looking for the kind of effort from his players that he said he saw at times last season.

“Our mentality for 82 games is to go out and be the hardest-playing team every night we step on the floor,’’ Hoiberg said.

The Hardest-Working Paper in America appreciates the spirit behind that mentality but will reserve judgment on whether it’ll happen. Hoiberg is allowed his optimism, however. It’s the start of a new season, when everything is newer and shinier. And bigger.