Who the Hell is Lauri Markkanen?

Lauri Markkanen prepares to shoot two, after getting fouled in a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

In less than a week, the Bulls and their young big, Lauri Markkanen, will have made a decision about his financial future. Both sides are staring down the barrel of Markkanen’s rookie contract extension. The deadline for the two sides to come to an agreement on an extension is December 21st. If no agreement is made, Markkanen will become a restricted free agent next offseason, meaning the Bulls will have the right to match any contract offer made to him.

So far this offseason, four players from Markkanen’s rookie class have signed extensions with their teams. They are four of the best players in that class: Bam Adebayo, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and De’Aaron Fox. These four have proven they belong in the NBA, and they have all excelled over the last three seasons. They have either reached some degree of stardom or are poised to achieve it in the next couple seasons. It makes a lot of sense that Adebayo, Tatum, Mitchell, and Fox were offered and signed extensions with their teams. The question that looms here in Chicago is: Does it make sense for the Bulls and Markkanen to do the same?

The pros and cons of signing Markkanen to an extension are as tangled as a balled up string of Christmas tree lights. For Markkanen, it makes sense to sign an extension if 1) he likes Chicago, and 2) he likes the security of a large pay check for several years. Markkanen has already expressed his love for this city on numerous occassions, and in his 1st press conference of this season he said he was putting pressure on his agent to get a contract extension done.

The big negative for him signing is that he under-performed last season, so the pay checks won’t be as large as they could have been or might be, if he holds out for free agency next summer. By “betting on himself” this season, and not signing a rookie extension, Markkanen could roll into next summer (an offseason in which a lot of teams will have cap space to offer big contracts) as a hot commodity. He could get significantly more money than what the Bulls are most likely offering him in this extension. But in order for the bet to pay off, Lauri will have to do two things he has failed to do in his previous 3 seasons: Stay healthy and produce consistently.

With the specter of Covid casting a pall on this season, staying healthy may be difficult. Free agent acquisition Garrett Temple is currently quarantined fighting the virus. Several other members of the Bulls are rumored to be doing the same. This might not be the best season for Markkanen to bet on his health.

That being said, it is an undeniable fact, we have seen flashes of greatness from Markkanen. Over the past 3 seasons, he has dropped 30+ points on opponents in 12 games out of 170 played. He has set the NBA record for fastest player to reach 100 three pointers made. He has out played All-Stars on their home court. Yet despite his amazing accomplishments most of us still don’t know who or what the hell Lauri Markkanen is.

Is he the fierce Unicorn that out duels Kristaps Porzingis? Or is he the timid rabbit that can’t post up undersized point guards? Is he the stallion thundering down the lane trying to posterize his opponent? Or is he the floating big, sitting in the lonely corner waiting for someone to pass him the ball? Is he the rim protector swatting lame floaters back into the face of Steph Curry? Or is he the turnstile defender, getting beat off the dribble by anyone with half a handle?

I don’t know.

And I’m not sure the Bulls know either.

He has been all of those things at any given moment in his short career.

For the Bulls to sign Markkanen to a contract extension, they will have to guess at who and what he is and will become. They will have to bet on this new coaching and training staff. They will have to trust that the new player development department can get the most out of Lauri. For the Bulls, it’s almost the opposite thought process of what Markkanen is going through. Their pros to signing him, are his cons; he under-performed last season, so an extension might mean the Bulls get him for a cheaper price than they would if they wait for restricted free agency. However, if you sign Lauri, and he continues to miss games due to injury, or he never becomes a consistent player, then you’ve spent decent money on a dud. Cristiano Felicio 2.0 if you will (the 2.0 stands for twice the money).

Most experts think that a fair contract for Markkanen right now is somewhere in the range of $14 – $18 million per year. The most recent comparison is to Davis Bertans of the Washington Wizards, who has a very similar stat line to Markkanen, and just signed a 5 year contract for $80 million dollars (or $16 million per year.). Markkanen’s deal doesn’t have to be for as many years or for that much money, but it is a precedent that has been set by another team, and the two players do have awfully similar numbers.

I don’t know what to think of a Markkanen extension. I really want him to be good, and I’d hate to see him sign with another team next season and become great, but he can be so infuriating to watch. The teases of greatness followed by the disappearing act that has become Markkanen’s calling card, is simply frustrating. That’s why I’m leaning toward this being a “prove it year” for Markkanen. If I’m the Bulls, I’m not agreeing to an extension, I’m telling Lauri to show me he’s worth the money. If he is I’ll be more than happy to pay for his talent next offseason.

Until my pockets grow as deep as the Reinsdorf’s, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!