If the Bulls are to achieve their goals, Lauri Markkanen must play more


It’s time to play Lauri Markkanen more.

Jim Boylen is in a tough spot, to be sure. Thaddeus Young didn’t sign here to average 21 minutes, 41 seconds, which is why his camp conveyed that to management recently. Daniel Gafford has been a pleasant surprise as a second-round pick and deserves rotational minutes, pushing the big-man rotation to four.

None of this should change the fact Markkanen needs to average more than 30 minutes, 5 seconds per game.

Perhaps Monday night’s 123-102 loss to the Bucks isn’t the perfect time to raise this point. Markkanen has been sent home from the last two practices due to illness and admitted to a plan to manage his minutes over the last two games. Plus, the Bulls’ second-half collapse brought garbage time, so Markkanen — on pace to hit his season average — fell 2:40 short.

But the New Year should bring a new outlook regarding Markkanen. After all, this was touted as his breakout season. Right now, he’s averaging two minutes less than last season and just barely above his rookie average of 29.7 minutes per game.

Unsurprisingly, Markkanen took the high road when asked about his role.

“We are playing faster than last year and my rookie year, so it’s good that people actually have fresh legs,” Markkanen said. “We’re trying to get out in transition on offense and we need to get back on defense. I think I’m in good shape and can play at that level. But it is a faster system.”

In a nod to this, Boylen consistently has used a 10-player rotation this season, sometimes even stretching it to 11. Before Markkanen’s illness, Boylen had still gone 10 players deep, but lowered the minutes of some of the back-end rotational players.

As a result, Markkanen had logged 35 or more minutes in three of five games leading up to Monday's matchup with the Bucks, matching his total from the first 27 games. Moving forward as the calendar turns to 2020, that should be the norm, not the exception.

Boylen said it isn’t hard to find the right minutes for Markkanen in a big-man rotation of four. And Boylen is trying to get Young going since the 13-year veteran is shooting 39.3 percent, a full 10 percent below his stellar career average.

But that shouldn’t come at the expense of Markkanen, particularly since he just wrapped a month that reminded all of the player he can be.

In 31.3 minutes per game in December, Markkanen averaged 17.6 points on 50.9 percent shooting, including 40.2 percent on 3-pointers. He made at least four 3-pointers in half of the Bulls’ 14 games as they went 7-7 for the month.

“I feel good,” Markkanen said. “I’m playing with confidence.”

If that means trading Young, then so be it. And that’s no knock on Young, who has remained professional with his teammates and coaches despite wanting to play more. He also makes plenty of defensive plays that don’t show up in box scores.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the Clippers are believed to have interest in Young as the Feb. 6 trade deadline nears. Sources said no substantive talks have occurred between the teams to this point. Mo Harkless would be the likely candidate on the block for the Clippers, and with Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison injured, he makes some sense for the Bulls.

The Clippers could have their eyes on bigger targets than Young between now and the deadline. But the Bulls’ target should be clear: Play Markkanen more.

On Media Day, Markkanen stated his goal to play all 82 games after missing 44 during his first two seasons. He’s 34-for-34 to this point.

“You can’t help the team in a suit on the sideline. It sucks to be injured. That’s what I’m trying to avoid, so I’m fighting through stuff,” Markkanen said, alluding to his illness. “If I’m really hurt, it’s not like a be-all, end-all goal. But it’s good to be there for your teammates and for us to be successful.”

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