Bulls top draft pick Lauri Markkanen Sunday made his NBA debut and was widely off the Mark, making one of nine shots and zero for six on threes in the Bulls 108-95 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
But Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg loved it.
“One thing everyone loves about Lauri (was from) Summer League,” Hoiberg explained. “My favorite game is when he took 10 threes and didn’t make any of them (game two loss to Atlanta). But he kept shooting them and the next game he bounced back knocking down shots. We want him aggressive. He is one of the best shooters on this basketball team. It was a great first experience for Lauri against two of the better bigs in the league, getting his feet wet for the first time against an NBA opponent. I was happy to see him continue to be aggressive even though his shot wasn’t falling.”
Just imagine how thrilled Hoiberg would have been if Markkanen had missed a dozen threes.
“It didn’t go the way we wanted it,” said the laconic Markkanan. “But it was good to get some work in an NBA game. I’m not lacking confidence. They just didn’t fall today. I will just go back to the gym and keep practicing. I’m not worried.”
If Markkanen usually doesn’t say much, he isn’t shy when it comes to shooting. He started the second quarter for his first NBA work. He missed the Bulls first three exhibition games, in which they were 2-1, with back spasms. Markkanan launched his first shot 12 seconds into the quarter and was one of five playing six minutes. He added a nice scoop score and finished the game with four points in just under 16 minutes.
The Bulls were led by Denzel Valentine with 15 points. He continued his excellent three point shooting, making three of seven for 13 of 24 for 54 percent in the four games. Nikola Mirotic, Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday each had 13 points with six Bulls scoring in double figures.
But it wasn’t nearly enough—with 11 of 41 on threes—to match the Pelicans Anthony Davis with 37 points and 15 rebounds and DeMarcus Cousins with 22 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. Davis attempted 23 free throws; no Bull attempted more than four free throws. Plus, the Pelicans with a loss last week to the Bulls apparently were serious as Cousins played almost 37 minutes and several sequences against the slightly built Markkanen. Davis played 34 minutes.
But it was that live-by-the-three, die-by-the-three mentality that the Bulls figure to pursue all season that let them down. Without a big time individual shot creator or players particularly adept at attacking the basket and finishing, they’re not going to get many of those easy free throw line points.
They’ll have to make those threes, which is one big reason Hoiberg wasn’t discouarged by Markkanen’s shaky shooting start.
Markkanen had no difficultly finding his shot and space to shoot; his stroke is pure and he isn’t hesitant. He’s too good a shooter to have too many bad games. The Bulls are working hard to move the ball, though there’s a concern with Kris Dunn out after suffering that dislocation injury Friday.
Dunn likely will miss two to four weeks. So Jerian Grant has the starting point guard position assured at least during that time. Grant had an active game with 11 points, six rebounds, five assists, three of four on threes and three turnovers. He’s not a natural point guard, and more of a scorer.
Hoiberg went with the same starting lineup again of Grant, Holiday, Paul Zipser, Mirotic and Lopez. That seems like the group that will open the season if there are no more injuries with two preseason games left, Tuesday in Cleveland and Friday in the United Center against Toronto.
“I like what that group has brought us,” Hoiberg said. “Tonight we talked about getting off to a much better defensive start. This team crushed us in the first quarter of the first game (46 points) and that has been a theme in the other two games as well. We held them to 20 points in that first quarter.
“We shot the ball 31 percent in the first half and it was a five-point deficit. That’s growth. We didn’t shoot the ball well in Dallas and we got beat by 40-plus. You have to find a way to keep yourself in the game when the shots aren’t falling.”
Backup point guard thus becomes a conundrum.
Hoiberg went with Valentine initially, but while an adequate ballhandler, especially with another point guard, he’s prone to pressure. The Bulls had more success with Ryan Arcidiacono, who had a team high six assists and two steals in 21 minutes. But there’s the question of who would sacrifice minutes.
Hoiberg went early with David Nwaba at small forward for Zipser since Nwaba has been the most aggressive player in camp attacking the basket. But he didn’t get much going in 25 minutes. Markkanen played after Mirotic and Bobby Portis, and then played some perimeter center. Though he was no match for Cousins, who battered him and drove around for easy scores. Hoiberg then mercifully removed Markkanen from the game.
“He is very strong and it showed that I have things I need to work on,” said the seven foot Markkanen, probably at least 50 pounds lighter, and far less angry than Cousins. “It doesn’t matter to me, but obviously if I’m playing the five it’s more time in the post, which as you can see I need to work on.”
It obviously was the worst of matchups. It might be more realistic Tuesday against the Cavaliers, who have tinkered with Kevin Love at their stretch center.
Zach LaVine, of course, remained out from his ACL surgery. Quincy Pondexter, who will get a look at small forward, also hadn’t played with a hamstring injury.
The Bulls thwarted Davis and Cousins early in leading 21-20 after one quarter as Holiday spun out several threes and was zero for five. He made three of his last four, all in the third quarter when the Bulls finally got some offense going and made six of 11 threes. But Davis crushed them with 12 third quarter free throws to two for the Bulls.
Offense is going to be a constant problem for this Bulls group, now so dependent on three-point shooting. They trailed 49-44 at the half and then got back into the game with a 69-67 lead on Holiday’s third three of the third quarter. But they missed seven of nine shots to close the quarter and trailed 81-73 entering the fourth. With Davis and Cousins still in until two minutes remained, the Pelicans kept a double digit lead the last eight minutes.
“Our effort was great,” said Hoiberg. “I’m proud of the guys for going out and fighting. They played their (main) guys and we hung in there with them. We got down a little bit in the third. We made some big plays, hit those two threes in row to tie it or take the lead. We kept clawing and scratching and fighting. That is what this team has to do.”
On your Markkanen, get set and almost ready to go.