As elbow improves, Chicago Bulls' Markkanen moves into rising stars territory

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen has played lights out after missing the first 23 games of the season.

    Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen has played lights out after missing the first 23 games of the season. Associated Press

  • Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen has put up all-star numbers the last several weeks, including helping his team to victory Feb. 8 in New York.

    Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen has put up all-star numbers the last several weeks, including helping his team to victory Feb. 8 in New York. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 2/16/2019 6:32 PM

The Chicago Bulls might seem bereft of all-stars this season, but that's not exactly the case.

Lauri Markkanen made the trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, to participate in the glorified layup line known as the Rising Stars Challenge. That's rookies and sophomores divided into U.S. and international teams.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Markkanen finished Friday night with 21 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists.

The timing is appropriate, since after missing the first 23 games of the season with a right-elbow sprain, Markkanen is starting to produce all-star caliber numbers.

Markkanen has posted eight double-doubles in the last nine games. During that time, he has averaged 22.8 points and 13.6 rebounds. There is one NBA player averaging at least 22 points and 13 rebounds over the full season (Philadelphia's Joel Embiid), so Markkanen has been living in elite company the past few weeks.

Bulls coach Jim Boylen said recently he pushed Markkanen to chase every rebound, because that gets him going offensively.

Markkanen's version varied slightly.

"I just think about how can I help the team win," he said. "Especially when the shot's not falling, you've got to do different things and affect the game different ways. So that's what I've been trying to do."

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That quote gave a little bonus insight into Markkanen's resurgence. The 7-foot Finland native doesn't think he's playing his best because his 3-point shot isn't falling consistently. He's shooting 38.3 percent on the season from long range and his accuracy has dropped every month since returning Dec. 1.

"Even though it isn't bad, it's not what I'm used to," Markkanen said of his 3-point shot. "So just kind of doing different things, get to the rim, get to the free-throw line. That's what I'm trying to do.

"Elbow's doing good. I'm not quite where I was in the fall before the injury, but I'm getting there."

Bulls fans might recall that one storyline from media day in late September was Markkanen's physique. He added an impressive amount of muscle after his rookie season, especially in the arms and shoulders. A couple of days later, the elbow injury happened in practice and his weight-room regimen had to stop.

"I feel like my strength is not back yet, but I'm working on it and hopefully I'll get my big arms back," he said. "I shrink."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Markkanen's improvement began around the time the Bulls adjusted their offense to push the pace. He now has the freedom to grab a defensive rebound and go. Sometimes he will pass it to a guard, but he has the option of bringing it up and initiating offense.

Over the past eight games, even before the trade for Otto Porter Jr., the Bulls have shot 50 percent as a team and averaged 116.4 points per game. The idea behind the offense is anyone, besides maybe Robin Lopez, can bring the ball up.

"It's been good for us, it mixes the defense up, they're not really used to four guys bringing it up, and if I'm the 5, we've got five guys bringing it up," Markkanen said. "It all starts from defense. We've got to get the defensive board, not take it out of the net all the time. We have guys to make shots. The game's fun."

Early in the season, Zach LaVine appeared to be a solid all-star candidate when he ranked in the top five in scoring. He was 16th when the all-star break began.

With the offense showing signs of life, maybe there's hope for a Bulls all-star next season when the game moves to the United Center for the first time.

"I'm disappointed I'm not in Charlotte, but I'm happy the break's coming," LaVine said Wednesday. "I'll take it as a rest."

• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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