The Bulls were all smiles Tuesday, and not necessarily because they finally won a Summer League game, 82-73 over the Washington Wizards.
And not even so much because rookie first rounder Lauri Markkanen had his first double/double with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Well, that was encouraging, but it was more that it came a day after ESPN featured the rookie on its SportsCenter program loop as something of an NBA joke after Markkanen’s zero for 10 three-point shooting in the Monday loss to Atlanta.
ESPN kept showing Markkanen misses superimposed with a house of bricks being constructed.
Sure, they were misses, but also never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
They were good shots, not much contested, just, well, it’s a hit or miss league.
“Yes, I heard about that,” Markkanen said with a sly smile about the commentary following his o-fer.
But the measure of an NBA player is as much how he responds to defeat–which the Bulls figure to see enough of this season—and how he refuses to accept the conventional wisdom.
Not tough enough, not fearless enough?
Not Lauri Markkanen.
The smooth seven-footer also hit a big three down the stretch after the Wizards hopefuls had cut a 23-point deficit to 67-66. Markkanen’s no hesitation three gave the Bulls youngsters a 72-68 lead with 3:47 left and Denzel Valentine and newly added Duje Dukan added threes to close out the win.
The Bulls are now 1-2 and start elimination play Wednesday. They were without Kris Dunn, home for personal reasons, and backup point guard Cameron Payne, who also left for family personal reasons. Ryan Arcidiacono started at point guard with Antonio Blakeney at shooting guard.
Blakeney, the LSU free agent shooting guard, led the Bulls with 23 points, shooting nine of 17 and making four of five threes. He impressed as a strong possibility to be added to the roster for at least training camp. Valentine had 15 points and was three of eight on threes after missing all eight of his Monday. Dukan had 11 points.
Markkanen was four of 10 on threes and six of 17 overall and led the Bulls in rebounding. Markkanen had a steal and a block and demonstrated not only that resilience from defeat and derision, but toughness, dunking the ball and going hard to the basket.
“Every time we go on the court we are more comfortable with one another,” said Markkanen. “We just started enjoying the game more and didn’t care who is scoring; share the ball, unselfish play.”
Markkanen, who followed interviews with American media with sessions with TV from Finland where he is becoming a national hero, is concise and terse in interviews, if not unfriendly. He’s cooperative, though succinct. He tends to see himself more a part of the team that subtly towering over everyone.
“Just trying to do what’s best for the team,” he said. “Good feeling to win. Our team made the shot (he hit late in the game). I just happened to hit it.”
Markkanen also seemed casually assured about his shooting. He said he didn’t feel a need to rush back to the gym to shoot after his zero for 10 game. He knew it was an aberration, and when coaches counseled him before the game Tuesday to keep shooting, he didn’t think he’d do otherwise. It’s the kind of confidence a top pick needs. Markkanen appears to have that even if he doesn’t need to shout it like some.
“I just wanted to clear my mind,” said Markkanen. “I knew I was going to put the work in. At that point, I knew I had to stay away and not think about it and it would be good tomorrow. It was just a matter of time (before the threes went in). All my threes yesterday felt good. I was confident they were going in; today was the same thing. It was closer to normal, but I still feel I can be better.
“I didn’t want to change anything; just stop thinking about it and just let it fly,” said Markkanen. “And they went. I feel I’m doing better all the time. You never are going to be perfect, so go out and improve whatever you can. We’ve been together for such a short period of time. I know I can do a lot of things offensively and defensively, so I try to do them.
“I know I haven’t shown everything. There are a lot of things I haven’t done yet. I’m just getting back on the court after a lot of stuff going on after draft week, so it’s a matter of getting in the gym and working on things. We also just started working as a team. I’ve just got to do my job on the court and everything else will follow.”
A reporter from TV in Finland was waiting to ask questions. He said Markkanen was becoming almost a national resource being a high lottery pick. Markkanen was asked about being the face of his country for basketball in the NBA.
“I just want to do my job on the court and everything will follow. I play better under pressure,” Markkanen said with a shrug. “So I don’t mind it.”