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Lauri Markkanen Is Tearing It Up in EuroBasket

The Bulls rookie became a Twitter punch line on draft night, but now he’s showing flashes of a promising future

2017 Las Vegas Summer League - Dallas Mavericks v Chicago Bulls Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Let’s talk about Lauri Markkanen.

Actually, first, let’s talk about expectations. Expectations are cruel. They are strapped to every NBA draft pick, namely the ones in the lottery, but there are times when extenuating circumstances amplify them to heights unknown and unfortunate.

Take Markelle Fultz. Any player picked first is burdened with heightened attention, but add the wrinkle that the Sixers moved up two spots in the draft to get him, and the expectations jump even higher. Fultz could end up being a perfectly good NBA player, a more-than-respectable accomplishment for nearly every human on earth, but when you’re picked first, franchises and fans want more out of you. A top pick doesn’t have to wash out of the league to be a bust.

In the lead-up to the draft, 7-foot international shooter Lauri Markkanen couldn’t escape the lazy comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki. Before he’d even been picked, Markkanen was saddled with unreasonable expectations.

Further complicating matters for Markkanen, the Bulls had fallen in love with him and decided they needed to trade Jimmy Butler. That the trade with the Timberwolves—Butler for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and a nine-spot jump on draft night to the seventh overall pick—involved him (and that the Bulls took him so high) made Markkanen the butt of all the jokes.

"Lauri was the best player on the board … he's a guy who fits our team and fits how the game is being played in the NBA," general manager Gar Forman said at the team’s presser post-draft.

At that time, pointing out Markkanen’s flaws—his poor rebounding, inconsistent defending, and lack of playmaking—quickly became the fashion statement of the moment. It wasn’t wrong. Markkanen struggled defensively when teams went small on Arizona this past year, and when his shot wasn’t falling, the Wildcats were better off, in some situations, without him.

Fast-forward to September, and Markkanen is starting to make his detractors question their initial instincts.

Playing for his home country of Finland at EuroBasket last week, Markkanen shined, displaying his entire array of shooting skills while showing flashes of playmaking and defending, as well as drives to the hoop. He’s averaging over 24 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, and is shooting over 50 percent from the field and behind the arc. Most of all, he looks aggressive, more so than he did in college. Of course, it’s clear that the NBA players he will face starting in October are of a different caliber than most of the players participating in EuroBasket, but it’s also evident that Markkanen, who will likely have to fight the “weak” label given to European players, has the skills to hold his own.

Markkanen has all the requisite skills and style to play in a modern NBA, even if his size is slightly mitigated by his still-developing inside game and mediocre rebounding. That’s where he will have to improve—but there’s no denying the value of his lethal shooting.

“I don’t need to say how special [he] is. You all see it when he plays,” Finland head coach Henrik Dettmann said. One thing is certain: Markkanen will play a whole lot of minutes on the Bulls, who have been very clear about their willingness to rebuild. Chicago, competitively, will be a nonfactor this season, but with more roster flexibility, the Bulls can focus on developing Markkanen and their other youngsters, including LaVine and Dunn.

“It’s unfair to compare human beings with each other. And we are talking about players from different areas,” Dettmann said. “But there are many similar things in the game that Dirk and Lauri play. If Lauri has the same work ethic, and is healthy, he’ll definitely reach the same level that Dirk has.”

I guess no matter how good or bad Markkanen ends up being, he’ll never be able to escape being compared to Dirk.