Lauri Markkanen isn’t comfortable talking about himself — or anything, really, outside the context of team.
It’s how he was raised and how he was taught the game of basketball.
But in a phone interview with NBC Sports Chicago following an up-and-down season that featured him moving from focal point to reserve, the mild-mannered forward made clear his approach to his restricted free agency this offseason.
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“My thing is I think I’ve always been a team-first guy. And I think now it’s time to look at the business side of the game,” Markkanen said. “I feel like I’m only 23 years old and I have a lot of basketball ahead of me. It’s a good opportunity to look what’s out there for me. I can be a focal point. I think I have a lot more to offer.”
Markkanen shot a career-high 48 percent this season, including a career-high 40.2 from 3-point range. His per-36-minute scoring average of 19 points represented the second-highest of his four-year career, although he posted career-lows in rebounding and free-throw attempts.
“I mean, I’m happy with some of the things I did this year. Obviously, team-wise we’re disappointed we’re not playing,” Markkanen said. “One of my goals was to shoot 40 percent from 3. And I did that. But I know I can do a lot more. I’m excited about what the business side is going to bring this year. I’m taking a little bit of my mind off basketball right now. We’ll see what happens.”
After rejecting the Bulls’ multi-year extension offer before the season because of a gap of roughly $4 million annually, Markkanen began the season with two 20-point games in his first four. But his first speed bump occurred when he landed in the league’s health and safety protocols for seven games because of contact tracing.
When he returned from that, Markkanen averaged 21 points over seven January games and scored 30 points in a victory over the New York Knicks before a freak injury on Feb. 5 at Orlando led to a 13-game absence with a sprained right shoulder.
“I feel like I started great. After the COVID thing, I found my rhythm. Then you have a freak accident and bump shoulders and you’re out for four weeks. That sucks and you try to climb back,” Markkanen said. “And then obviously our team changed a lot and changed my role. That was a little bit of an adjustment. I tried to play my role as well as I could.”
Indeed, perhaps no player felt the impact of the arrivals of Nikola Vučević and Daniel Theis more than Markkanen, who was included in trade talks centered around New Orleans Pelicans point guard Lonzo Ball at the deadline. After Billy Donovan started Markkanen alongside Vučević in the All-Star center’s Bulls debut on March 27 at San Antonio, the coach quickly shifted Markkanen to a reserve role.
Markkanen averaged 21.7 minutes and 7.3 shots in 16 April games, substantial drops for a player that had been more featured earlier in the season.
Donovan offered an impassioned defense of Markkanen over the weekend, praising his role acceptance and professionalism. Similarly, executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas called Markkanen “an essential part of our team” who he hopes “is a part of what we’re building here” at his end-of-season news conference on Monday.
“I thought Lauri had a good year. I thought he was more efficient. He’s a 40 percent three-point shooter. You know shooting comes at a premium in our league,” Karnišovas said. “I’m looking forward to free agency and talking to his representation.’’
As a restricted free agent, Markkanen can have any offer sheet he signs matched by the Bulls. But if a big-money offer comes his way, are the Bulls going to commit millions to a player that Donovan viewed a poor enough pairing alongside a centerpiece like Vučević that he brought him off the bench?
Markkanen said such details didn’t come up in his exit meeting.
“We talked about stuff I can do better and some stuff I did well this year. Obviously, we talked about what to work on. But we didn’t talk about the business side that much,” Markkanen said. “Wherever it is going to be, I’m committed to the team. You know that about me. I’m excited to see what’s out there for me.
“I don’t have any regrets turning (the extension) down. I think I did the right decision. I have a lot of basketball ahead of me. I can do a lot of different stuff on the court. I’m confident in my abilities.”