Lauri Markkanen Deep Dive: Should the Bulls Keep Him?

Spoiler Alert: Probably not!

Artūras Karnišovas, the Chicago Bulls’ new head decisionmaker, has had a bunch of big decisions to make early in his tenure. He fired Gar Forman, Jim Boylen, disempowered John Paxson, hired new general manager Marc Eversley, and swooped in to grab Billy Donovan as soon as he came on the head coaching market. His next big set of decisions to make revolve around the draft (about which I may post thoughts in this space at a later time), but after that, perhaps no decision will be more consequential than what Karnišovas decides to do with Finnish big man, Lauri Markkanen.

Markkanen is a player that feels very hard to get a bead on. This may be the result of motivated reasoning and wishful thinking for me, given that I am regrettably still a Bulls partisan. If I try to put a more objective lens on him, he looks like a player who has played three years and hasn’t really meaningfully improved at anything and doesn’t bring a single standout skill in his time as a professional.

Markkanen’s per possession and advanced stats, via basketball-reference.com

Markkanen’s Box Plus-Minus (BPM) has hovered around just below league average ever since his rookie year, and the same can be said for his Win Shares per minute and PER. For what it’s worth, Markkanen’s more holistic impact metrics tell a broadly similar story of mediocre to incredible average-ness. Drilling down under the hood to what goes into those box-score all-in-one numbers, Markannen is essentially league average at scoring efficiency: 99% of League Average TS% every year for each of his seasons at slightly above average volume, he is mediocre at rebounding for a big man, his block and steal rates are nothing to write home about, and he’s a pretty dreadful passer by assist rate.

Markkanen’s low steal and block rates and poor passing numbers are a carryover from his time in college at University of Arizona (see above). This similarity to his college stats is important because it gives additional credence to the idea that this is part of who Lauri is as a player and not just the result of a crummy situation in Chicago, spending the majority of his career being coached by Jim Boylen, the worst head coach in the league the last two seasons in the estimation of this writer. That’s not to say that Markkanen couldn’t have looked better in a better situation or improved more under better coaching, but it is to say that he is probably deficient when it comes to event generation on defense and court vision on offense in a way that seems fairly unlikely to change.

One thing that has not carried over from Markkanen’s collegiate career to his professional years has been his dead-eye shooting from deep. Markkanen was a 42% three point shooter on healthy volume — 163 attempts — at Arizona and paired that with a free throw percentage of 83.5%. Every indication we had from college was that Markkanen would, at the very least, be a 7 foot marksman at the NBA level. Instead, Lauri has shot 35.6% on 1,050 attempts thus far in the league, almost exactly league average on significant volume. That’s certainly good enough to command some attention and demand a close out, but almost certainly not good enough to panic and warp a defense in the ways he might have been expected to as a prospect.

Markkanen’s shooting is even worse when you consider that the vast, vast majority of his shots from behind the line have been of the catch-and-shoot variety, typically a much easier shot type. In his rookie year, 371 of his 391 three point shots were catch-and-shoot looks and he converted at his 36.9%. In 2019, 301 of his 326 attempts were catch-and-shoot attempts and he shot just 36.5% on them. This past season, 302 of Markkanen’s 317 attempted threes were catch-and-shoot opportunities and he shot only 34.4% on them. So Markkanen is seeing a huge portion of his looks coming off passes, which should make them easier shots and he’s shooting at a well below league average mark on catch-and-shoot shots. I don’t have access to the Second Spectrum shot quality data, but given the above, it’s almost a certainty that Markkanen’s scoring is well below average given his shot profile.

But wait, it gets worse! Markkanen’s shooting splits when viewed through the lens of whether he was guarded versus un-guarded make his league average shooting percentages look even less impressive.

Data via stats.nba.com

Markkanen shoots decently above league average on wide-open or “NBA open” (nearest defender 6 feet away or greater) a very strong 42%. However, when you introduce even the slightest amount of resistance (defender within 4-6 feet, called “Open” by the NBA stats page), his percentages go into the tank. He shoots 6 percentage points below the league average on these shots. Lauri doesn’t shoot a meaningful number of threes outside of these two guarded contexts, so they are really the only ones worth discussing.

Shooting isn’t the only context in which Lauri looks lacking when he runs up against greater resistance. I took a look at Player Impact Plus-Minus broken out by opponent, split by top 10 opponents and the remaining 20 opponents, based on adjusted net rating. I filtered for only players that played a minimum of 500 minutes against each group of opponents. In every year of his career, Lauri ranks significantly worse amongst that group of players in PIPM against top 10 teams versus against the dregs of the league.

When the going gets tough, Lauri’s game gets going.

Looking at the whole picture of Lauri Markkanen’s career it is very hard to build a case for the Bulls to be excited about trying to keep him with an extension or an RFA contract next offseason. Markkanen is a 7 foot shooter who brings very little else to the table and even then, pretty much only shoots well when he is absolutely wide open. He’s an awkward defensive fit on a good team as a guy who provides absolutely no paint deterrence for opponents when he plays either PF or C and who can’t guard wing players when opponents downsize at the PF position.

According to Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM contract value projector, Markkanen is worth roughly $16 million a season going forward on his next deal. But, as I hope I’ve made clear, Lauri’s PIPM probably overstates his value, because he consistently fails to bring it against the elite teams in the league and instead does most of his damage bum-slaying the worst teams in the league. As a result, if you’re trying to build a high level winner, even committing $16 million a season to an extension for Markkanen is probably too much.

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