Bulls’ Zach LaVine endorses ex-teammate Lauri Markkanen for All-Star

LaVine, Donovan happy for Markkanen’s post-Bulls ascent originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Lauri Markkanen entered his second career game as a visitor in the United Center motivated to send a message. Zach LaVine knew as much before tipoff.

“I talked to him before the game,” the current Chicago Bulls guard and former teammate of Markkanen said following a 126-118 win over the Utah Jazz. “He was gonna try to make a statement.”

Twenty-eight points later, Markkanen had done just that — even if the effort came in defeat. Despite shooting 2-for-7 from 3-point range, he made a consistently positive impact by finishing 10 of his 11 shots in the paint, nabbing three steals and leveraging the increased defensive attention levied at him into open looks for his teammates.

Eight of those 10 interior buckets came in the form of authoritative slam dunks, including a primal scream-inducing poster of Nikola Vučević in the third quarter.

“Those dunks,” LaVine said, “I had to tell him in the first half to calm down a little bit. That didn’t help anything.”

Markkanen is now averaging a career-high 24.6 points per game while shooting career-best percentages from the field (53.2) and 3-point range (41.8). Showing improvements across the board, he is finally turning into the player the Bulls envisioned when they paired him with LaVine as centerpieces of their rebuild many moons ago.

In fact, Markkanen may well be on track to make his first All-Star game appearance in his sixth season. That case is supported by Markkanen’s Jazz colleagues — who sported Finnisher-themed sweatshirts before the game — and LaVine, alike.

“I’m just extremely happy for Lauri. The type of player that he is and he’s become, how aggressive he is out there,” LaVine said. “He’s 100 percent an All-Star in my book, he’s getting my vote.”

So, no, there are no sour grapes between the two former Bulls cornerstones, who shared another laugh-filled exchange in the hallway after each wrapped up their postgame obligations.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan harbors no ill will either.

“I was always a big fan of Lauri, just my short period of time being with him. I thought he had a tremendous skill set and great size, he was a smart player. Had a lot of different things that he could do,” the Bulls’ head coach said before the game. “Guys just get better through their experiences. He’s gotten stronger, probably more confidence, more comfortable, and he’s obviously played very well.”

Donovan coached Markkanen during the forward’s fourth NBA season. It was an unceremonious campaign that began with Markkanen and the Bulls failing to reach an agreement to extend his rookie contract, and concluded with him being moved to the bench one game after the trade for Vučević.

That offseason, Markkanen departed for Cleveland via sign-and-trade. The move capped an at times inspiring, but in all disappointing, Bulls tenure that saw him precipitously decline in the final two years of his rookie deal after flashing franchise player potential in the second half of his second season. Whoever you blame for said decline, Markkanen devolved into a standstill spot-up threat in those two years.

What’s changed since? Credit first-year Jazz head coach Will Hardy for his inventive usage of Markkanen, which has prioritized keeping the versatile forward on the move.

There is also an element of natural development at play.

“No, because everybody’s got their own growth period,” Donovan said when asked if he rues not drawing more out of Markkanen during their time together. “Everybody grows differently, everybody goes through it differently. (Luka) Dončić and (Jayson) Tatum and some guys like that, right when they hit the league, Donovan Mitchell, they were just impact players right away. You can take a lot of different players, and you look at everybody’s trajectory and curve that have become really great players, everybody’s timeline is different.

“I appreciated my time with him (Markkanen). I liked him a lot as a team guy. I liked being around him quite a bit. But he was kind of, again, on his own path of growth.”

It is no surprise to Donovan that Markkanen’s path has led to him ascending in his age-25 season.

“One thing that is a little bit unfair to a lot of these guys, in my opinion, is, if you’re gonna say that a guy’s prime is between the ages of 25 or 26 and 30, let’s just say, and now you ‘re now evaluating a guy at 21 years old, you’re not giving him a grace period of four years to get into his prime,’ Donovan said. “Part of the period of their growth is them going through a lot of difficulties and challenges to get where they are today. I think there’s a lot of players that fall under that umbrella where Lauri’s at.”

Markkanen’s Jazz, sitting 20-22 and 10th in the West, have slipped after their scalding start to the season, but their feel-good status remains. And Markkanen not only scored 60 points between his two matchups with the Bulls this season, but also is now averaging 23.2 points against them in five career games between Utah and the Cavaliers.

However, the Bulls are now 4-1 in those contests.

“It was good that we got the win,” LaVine said. “He was gonna play (well) regardless. I’m just glad we came out with the W.”

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