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Lauri Markkanen's trials in Chicago paved way for breakout season with Jazz


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SALT LAKE CITY — If you listen to how Chicago reporters tell it, Lauri Markkanen looked "broken" in his final year with the Bulls.

Markkanen was a once-promising prospect that had been confined to the bench, and looked like another case of a player that wouldn't quite live up to expectations. Except, one year removed from those trying years in Chicago, he's doing just that — and more — in Utah.

When Markkanen was taken with the No. 7 pick in the 2017 draft, Chicago envisioned they'd build a team around him. He was a 7-footer who was an elite collegiate shooter and had the skillset and size to create a mismatch against just about everyone. He could shoot, rebound, and handle the ball; he tried hard on defense and was great off the ball. What could go wrong?

In his second season in the league, he averaged 18.7, 9.0 rebounds, and had eight games of 30 or more points. It felt like he was on the verge of a break out.

That break out, however, would have to wait. Then-Bulls head coach Jim Boylen appeared to zap Markkanen's passion for the game during his third season. And by his fourth and final year in Chicago, he had been moved positions, lost his starting spot, and averaged career lows in both points and rebounds.

The Bulls moved on from Markkanen and dealt him in a sign-and-trade deal to Cleveland in Aug. 2021.

It was just about a year later that he put the world on notice with a dominant EuroBasket performance. His play there very much caught the eye of his new head coach in Utah. Jazz coach Will Hardy studied how the Finnish team used Markkanen and sought to incorporate some similar things into the Jazz's sets. The thinking was clear: If he could dominate at that tournament, why couldn't he do the same thing in the NBA?

Turns out, he can.

"We really wanted to come in and just start fresh with him here and try to build on how he'd been playing recently," Hardy said. "I think last year in Cleveland, he had a good year and, obviously, with the Finnish national team, he played great this summer, so it was really just about kind of trying to move forward with that."

After an extremely strong first quarter of the season, Markkanen is squarely in the race for the Most Improved Player award and had been discussed as a potential All-Star. He averages 22.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and is shooting nearly 39% from the 3-point line. In short, he looks like the player the Bulls once dreamed he'd become.

"I've gotten better as a player, grown, and more mature," Markkanen said. "I think just seeing things differently on the court, seeing different coverages and getting that experience. I think I'm a better basketball player now than I was a couple of years ago."

So with the Bulls in Salt Lake City on Monday — a game in which Markkanen scored a game-high 32 points against his former team — it begged the question: What went wrong in Chicago?

"I do think that was some of the things that happened to our team — moving him to small forward spot, maybe that was out of his natural position," said Chicago coach Billy Donovan, who coached Markkanen in his final year with the Bulls. "But I was always a big, big fan of his, and I think he's a winning player."

Success often doesn't come without trials. There were a lot of highs for Markkanen in Chicago; he had great games, even good seasons, but those came with plenty of struggles along the way — struggles that helped pave the path he's on now. He fought through it all and came out better because of it.

Hardy said that for a lot of young players there's timing involved in development. Sometimes a situation will benefit a player, other times it won't. In Markkanen's latter years with the Bulls, Chicago's style of play didn't necessarily allow him to be at his best. Now in Utah, he's been given that chance.

"Our group and our team fits how he plays," Hardy said. "And it's great to see his confidence growing, and he's playing great. Sometimes with young players in the NBA you can overreact if they're not quite as good as maybe you think they should be. And some things are just based on the situation that they're in; it's nobody's fault, it just takes them a minute to figure out where they fit."

For Markkanen, that's been with the Jazz.

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