Markkanen's struggles are about more than Bulls' new scheme
The box score from Monday's loss in Milwaukee was basically a reprint of the Bucks' defensive game plan.
The Bulls' best 3-point shooters were Thaddeus Young (4-for-8) and Kris Dunn (3-for-5). The Bucks clearly focused on making things tough on Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, while letting Young and Dunn shoot all they want. At least Young and Dunn knocked down most of their shots, since that was the main reason the Bulls lost by only 13.
The defensive game plan is a good place to start when examining why Markkanen's production has dropped in his third season. He set the bar high for himself last season and the league took notice.
Markkanen went 0-for-7 from 3-point range against the Bucks and posted a scoreless second half for the second time in three games. LaVine pushed through a tough night to score 24 points on 7-of-19 shooting. Markkanen hasn't gotten to the point yet where he can overcome a focused defensive effort against a good team.
On Tuesday, teammate Thaddeus Young talked about what kind of advice he has for Markkanen.
"Every season is not going to be a great season, and that's what a lot of guys have to realize," Young said. "At some point you're going to have a down year. Just stick with it. He's going to be in this league for a long time. He has a great ability to score the basketball. Each and every summer ... just try to add something to your game."
Young also suggested Markkanen can learn from LaVine's example of pushing through the setbacks that happen when playing a team like Milwaukee.
"I think the confidence level of Zach can be instilled in Lauri a little bit," Young said. "Lauri starts to miss shots, sometimes he gets down on himself. Zach misses a shot, Zach's like, 'I'm going to shoot the next one. I'm going to be more aggressive. I'm going to try to get to the basket.'"
After Monday's game, Markkanen mentioned how it would be nice to get more shots closer to the basket. Seven of his 11 shots against the Bucks were from 3-point range, and he's taken 53 percent of his shots this season from behind the arc. Last season, the ratio was 42 percent from long range.
The Bulls are using an analytics-based offensive plan this year, with a strong emphasis on taking shots either at the rim or from the 3-point line. The plan essentially tries to eliminate the midrange, which a lot of players grew up shooting. Sometimes taking a few shorter jumpers can get a player warmed up to shoot from 3.
Coach Jim Boylen can relate. He was a gunner when he played at the University of Maine, but only had the 3-point line in his senior season.
"We have a shot profile that we believe in and we're learning to play in that shot profile," Boylen said Tuesday. "We're going to keep trying to define and refine our system and grow with it. Has it been an adjustment? Of course. It's a new way to play for this group of guys. But we're going to stick with it and keep pounding the rock with it."
Markkanen is still adjusting to the Bulls' new offensive plan. But the offense doesn't explain why his rebounds have gone from 9.0 per game last season to 6.5 this year. Or why he's had some big games against weaker teams and struggled in tougher matchups.
He's played through oblique and ankle sprains this season, which might be why Markkanen has not been attacking the basket as often as he did in his first two season. Mostly, though, this is probably an adjustment year for a young player being asked to help carry a rebuilding team.
"Our offense is structured and predicated on 3s and getting to the basket," Young said. "But coaches are still encouraging him to mix everything up. You force a team to make adjustments when you're able to mix it up."
Bulls game dayBulls vs. Minnesota Timberwolves, Wednesday 7 p.m. at the United Center
TV: NBCSCH; Radio: WSCR 670-AM
Outlook: Center Karl-Anthony Towns missed 15 games recently with a left knee sprain. He's been back for the last three, but Minnesota (15-28) has lost six in a row heading into this game. ... Towns is averaging 26 points and 11.1 rebounds on the season, while shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line. SF Andrew Wiggins is averaging 22.4 ppg, with Proviso West HS grad Robert Covington at 12.7 ppg. ... PG Jeff Teague was traded back to Atlanta, so the Timberwolves have been starting Shabazz Napier (9.1 ppg) and rookie Jarrett Culver (9.8) in the backcourt. ... The Bulls went 0-2 against Minnesota last season, losing by 15 and 25 points.
Next: Sacramento Kings on Friday 7 p.m. at the United Center
-- Mike McGraw