On June 22, 2017, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded up-and-coming talent Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick to the Chicago Bulls for already an established two-way superstar in Jimmy Butler.
That first-round pick wound up being former Arizona Wildcat and 7-foot sharpshooting phenomenon in Lauri Markkanen. Could you imagine Markkanen teamed up with Karl-Anthony Towns in the frontcourt in Minnesota? Talk about one of the most versatile thunder and lightning duos in the NBA, but that’s nothing but a fantasy now.
On Oct. 17, 2017, Bulls power forward Nikola Mirotic was hospitalized after an altercation with fellow teammate, another power forward, Bobby Portis that started with harmless pushing and shoving, and resulting in a sucker punch. Mirotic’s injuries required surgery after suffering maxillary fractures, and add a concussion on top of that.
On Oct. 30, 2017, Chicago had its season opener against the Nuggets in Denver and playing time for the rookie Markkanen opened up like the red sea.
Now, Markkanen is the crème de la crème of players in this year’s rookie class that includes Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox and Donovan Mitchell.
Except Markkanen is different than all of the aforementioned prospects. He’s the 7-foot white guy from Europe who either makes NBA GMs look like geniuses, or questionable talent evaluators. And with a franchise that traded away its best player, the Bulls were desperate for any spark.
Markkanen has been compared to every 7-foot European with a silky-smooth jump shot in the book: Dirk Nowitzki, and the 7-foot-3 Unicorn or the artist formerly known as Kristaps Porzingis.
Against the Dallas Mavericks, Markkanen matched up against Nowitzki, which was equivalent to a master karate student sparring with their sensei, albeit that was the first time the two played. And Markkanen’s 16-point performance was enough to get Nowitzki’s attention.
“I mean, he shoots it easy, can move his feet, can play above the rim. He’s going to be great for a long, long time. I heard he’s a great kid, he’s a hard worker. ... He’s gonna be great for a long time,” Nowitzki told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon.
Fast forward to Wednesday night in Markkanen’s debut at Madison Square Garden against Porzingis and the Knicks, he made sure his presence was felt by putting Enes Kanter on a poster.
Good lawd, Lauri Markkanen. 😳pic.twitter.com/Vsz0oHJR0c— The Wildcaster (@TheWildcaster) January 11, 2018
Markkanen continued to impress in New York and finished the game with 33 points (career-high) and 10 rebounds, and went 8 of 15 from 3-point range, which was tied for most 3-pointers made by a 7-footer (Nowitzki). Behind Markkanen's performance, the Bulls were able to sneak away with a win in double overtime fashion, moving to 3-0 against the Knicks this season.
“He had an amazing game,” Porzingis told the New York Post. “The way he can shoot the ball from outside with his size … there are not a lot of people who can do that.”
Markkanen has scored 30-plus points in two games in less than a month, when he only scored 30 points once in 37 games at Arizona, but his numbers this season are historical. Markkanen averages 2.4 made 3s per game, which is the most by any rookie ever according to Micah Adams at ESPN Stats and Info.
That includes Stephen Curry (2.1), Allen Iverson (2.0), Damian Lillard (2.3), Reggie Miller (0.7), Ray Allen (1.4) and Steve Kerr (0.3).
Through 39 games, Markkanen is averaging 15.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. The only other ex-Wildcat that's posting better numbers this season is Aaron Gordon (18.9, 7.9), but Markkanen is on pace to blow Gordon's rookie numbers out of the water, as well as other notable Sean Miller players. All averages are per game in their rookie seasons:
Gordon (Magic): 5.2 points, 3.6 rebounds
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Nets): 5.8 points, 5.3 rebounds
Stanley Johnson (Pistons): 8.1 points, 4.2 rebounds
Derrick Williams (Timberwolves): 8.8 points, 4.7 rebounds
What about notable Lute Olson players?
Damon Stoudamire (Raptors): 19 points, 9.3 assists, 4 rebounds. Stoudamire won Rookie of the Year in 1995-96.
Sean Elliott (Spurs): 14.2 points, 4.3 rebounds
Mike Bibby (Grizzlies): 13.2 points, 6.5 assists, 2.7 rebounds
Richard Jefferson (Nets): 9.4 points, 3.7 rebounds
Gilbert Arenas (Warriors): 10.9 points, 3.7 assists, 2.8 rebounds
Andre Iguodala (76ers): 9.0, 5.7 rebounds
Markkanen is on pace to have the best rookie season out of any player that has been through the UA pipeline and he's already scoring more per game than Nowitzki (8.2) and Porzingis (14.3) did in their first year.
It's almost the halfway point of the regular season and Markkanen has splashed into the NBA as one of the most intriguing players for what is expected to be a new golden age of basketball.