Billy Donovan is known as a players coach. So his impassioned defense of Lauri Markkanen from late Thursday night shouldn’t surprise.
“I disagree with anybody that says, ‘Well, he has really dropped off or tailed off.’ It’s changed for him,” Donovan said as part of a lengthy answer that stretched over two minutes. “His minutes have changed. His role has changed.”
Asked whether or not Markkanen is playing for his Bulls life, Donovan also said he hasn’t had any conversations with management regarding Markkanen’s future.
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Then again, management said plenty when it engaged in trade talks with the New Orleans Pelicans centered on Markkanen and Lonzo Ball back in March. Given that sources at the time indicated the Bulls turned down other offers for Markkanen, who knows what Markkanen’s future holds?
Perhaps those trade talks were merely a matter of management targeting a need and trying to trade one imminent restricted free agent for another so as not to lose an asset for nothing. Perhaps Markkanen’s restricted free agency won’t produce the lucrative offer sheets he envisioned when he turned down the Bulls’ multi-year offer that annually was roughly $4 million shy of his desire.
Then again, there’s plenty of talk around the league that multiple teams, including the San Antonio Spurs, are poised to show interest. And are the Bulls going to spend to keep a player who, as of now, is coming off the bench because of his poor fit with Nikola Vučević?
In taking his head coaching job, Donovan made clear that he valued his partnership with management. So he’ll have at least some voice when it comes to offseason matters.
Here’s part of what he said after Markkanen sank six 3-pointers and scored 20 points in the victory over the Toronto Raptors.
“I really, really love Lauri as a player. He’s a great guy. And he has been an incredible teammate. And he has sacrificed a lot,” Donovan said. “When the trades did happen, he was a guy who was playing center and power forward and now it’s gone from power forward to small forward. It’s really changed a lot. He has never played the 3 his entire career. Not that he has played a lot of minutes there, but we’ve played him there and done some different things.
“I’ve just appreciated the way he has come in every day and tried to be a team guy and done the best he can in managing the minutes that he’s gotten... Clearly with the depth in our frontcourt, you want to make sure you utilize your best players as best you can. In doing that, guys are going to be impacted. And I do think Lauri has been impacted.
“You’re talking about a guy who has a shoulder injury, misses quite a bit of time, comes back after the All-Star break, plays a couple games and then we have an entirely different team and now he has to re-invent himself and find himself, that’s a lot. The one thing I’ve always asked Lauri to do is compete and play and maximize the time you’re out there for the benefit of the team. And he has always done that. And I respect and appreciate that from him.”
Give Markkanen credit for this: In his 24 reserve appearances, he has shot 43 percent from 3-point range and rebounded at a higher rate. He has stayed, as Donovan said, engaged and committed.
Overall, Markkanen is shooting a career-best 39.6 from 3-point range on 5.8 attempts per game. His 13.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 25.8 minutes per game are all career-lows.
Whether or not this offseason brings the end of his Bulls run, what his value is will be set this summer. And whether or not he reaches his full potential will be intriguing to monitor, from either up close or afar.