Chicago Bulls: How Wendell Carter Jr. Makes Lauri Markkanen Better

Chicago Bulls, NBA, Wendell Carter Jr.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Lauri Markkanen started 68 games and cemented himself as the face of a franchise. ‘The Finnisher’ played valiantly in a starved offense surrounded by as many journeymen as rings on Phil Jackson’s fingers.

Drafting Wendell Carter Jr. was a sign of things to come which means leaving Robin Lopez out of the starting-5 is inevitable. Jabari Parker and Zach Lavine create an overload of inefficiency. Fortunately for Chicago, the former Duke center opens the floodgates to a multiplication of Markkanen’s talents.

The oft-scrutinized front office has pieced together a book to build around. Yet the cover is not an indication of stylistic fit. The towers stitch together a spine of unicorn skill.

The two cloak each other’s deficiencies by putting their abilities on a pedestal. Their coach will publish sets for the two to optimize a harmony. Hoiberg harvests their talents in a classic horns-set, where Carter Jr. could forge a Horford-like impact. His ability to find cutters is uncanny.

Plugged into Lopez’s role, Carter Jr. will be cautiously moved along a slow conveyor belt his rookie season. In a play like this, Lopez spies a cutting Valentine, who declined a Markkanen screen:

Once a first-round pick out of Stanford, Lopez’s good plays aren’t in a vacuum. However, Carter Jr. is on a matrix-level wavelength when it comes to creation.

With the addition of a capable big, Lauri Markkanen is relegated to secondary screener. The role better suits his game. Now, his focus is on lacerating damage as a floor-stretching weapon.

Over the course of a surprising rookie season, Markkanen earned a few nicknames and boarded passengers on his hype train. Fueled by a three-point coal mine, Markkanen’s secondary skills are molded around his shooting.

Lauri was a historic shooter in every aspect—one of 5 rookies ever to shoot north of 36.1% on 400 deep-range attempts. A big factor for Markkanen’s shooting success was due to Robin Lopez.

Lopez’s screen domination opened up an avenue for Markkanen’s scoring rampage. Lopez’s 4.1 screen assists were second for players that played less than 26 minutes a game.

Chased down by tarantula-limbed defenders, Lopez went in the trenches for the shooter. Here, it was for a shot at the top off the arc:

Lopez’s hard screens whisked Markkanen’s ability to flash in the low post as well:

Plays like which allow Markkanen dive to the basket are slim, yet efficient. Markkanen’s knack for slipping past defenses enabled him to shoot 61.5% and score 1.32 points, albeit in a limited sample size.

Sprinkling in high-low actions and dribble hand-offs adds gasoline to the fast-paced motor that is Hoiberg’s half-court offense.

In Carter Jr., Markkanen gets a screen machine gun equipped with ammunition. Opponents knew Lopez’s stiff jump-shot was useless outside of 5 feet. Carter Jr. is a viable option to defenses, and thus a distraction which allows Markkanen to score.

What Lopez leaves at the altar, Carter Jr. catches like a bridesmaid. Carter Jr. isn’t a knockdown three-point shooter (YET), but he can bunny in a shot from a respectable range.  During Summer League, he gave us a sneak preview.

Carter Jr., first positioned on the block, catches the eye of Ryan Arcidiacono driving downhill, full head of steam. As Arcidiacono scurries, Carter Jr. sinks down to the short corner. Whether Zizic knows or not is irrelevant, the shift was too quick. Carter Jr. catches it and instead of confronting the bigger Cavalier, he floats it in.

Based on the fact that centers tend to guard players of his size like this, Carter Jr. can feast on perception and disregard in and around the lane.

This kind of instinctual spacing enriches a Chicago offense by influencing its most important piece: Lauri Markkanen.

When Lopez played a role Carter Jr. will play, Markkanen was a surgeon in the open court:

On the outside, Lauri’s sloppy ball-handling allows for defenders to buy into a false product. At which point his long strides slither past.

Even when setting screens, his end goal is to stagger both feet towards the basket and behind the line. He is well-versed at leveraging play sets to his skill.

Guarded by the lousy defender Bender, Markkanen sets a booby trap of a screen. Then, he slips to the wing for a wide-open three:

With Carter Jr. carving up more space inside than Portis does here, Markkanen will find more space outside. That’s something he struggled to do here, with Lopez as center:

The Finnisher is the steering wheel for the Bulls’ vehicle—his decision is a catalyst for timely jumpstarts. A distraction for when Markkanen is spotting-up could help Markkanen get more scoring opportunities.

Per Synergy, for players who were given more than 4.1 spot-up opportunities per game, Markkanen’s 0.97 points PPP placed second to last. The player slightly less effective on spot-ups was Al Farouq-Aminu (!).

Providing Markkanen with a versatile sidekick will endow room for Markkanen on the perimeter.

Here, Lopez is fixated on finding his teammates, then meandered around the perimeter as designated screen-setter for the finished product of the Finnish product (sorry, I had to) popping off for a three. The means to an end enabled Chicago to run Lauri off two consecutive ‘pops.’ The second pop was the last straw for a youthful Suns team.

Tyler Ulis jumps out of his socks to help off of Kris Dunn, allowing for a Markkanen audible (“Omaha, Omaha!”) at the last second:

In a screen-heavy offense, Carter Jr. will find himself playing a ‘Robin Lopez on steroids’ type of role. There is some value in keeping him within his boundaries as a screener while occasionally throwing him into the ring of fire as a creator.

In the video above, Carter Jr. takes on two roles: the enforcer and creator. Although what Carter Jr. doesn’t do is what makes this play so fascinating. By getting the ball at the high post, he has a few alternatives; bulrush the rim, kick it out and set an ensuing ball-screen, or pop a mid-range shot.  He could have done any of these things, but each had a caveat. So he decided to create for Blakeney, with a pitch and screen even Robin Lopez would approve of.

Here, Lopez seeks out a ball screen on Jamal Murray and then whips around to set another on Murray again. At this point, Murray is tired and lined up against the much bigger Markkanen. Lopez’s wherewithal to seek out matchup deficiencies is unique and, dare I say, Steven Adams-level.

The former Stanford center darts out of the picture to allow the main actor dominate the scene. Markkanen backs down Murray to the block, head bobbing his way to an and-one layup.

The matchup advantage allows him to finish an elegant drop-step below the rim; where he shot 62%. (NBA.com/stats).

Sometimes, his ability to get to the rim is highlighted by opponents. The team will mitigate Markkanen’s inside touch by over-helping off Lopez. Lopez’s conservativeness and inability to be more than a placeholder conjointly made him an easy defensive task.

Against the Spurs, Markkanen wiggles around Rudy Gay only to find Pau Gasol fully-fronted. Gasol’s matchup was Lopez, who was standing, unguarded, 6 feet from the hoop:

Markkanen has the raw skill to score efficiently in the paint, but it would be ideal for personnel to match his playing style. Carter Jr. lacks the veteran savviness Lopez brings on a nightly basis. What he does bring though is a big-man rarity: a three-point stroke to nurture spacing.

When Lopez rode the pine, Lauri’s space multiplied.

With Bobby Portis 25 feet astray, Ryan Anderson was glued to the arc. Markkanen took two dribbles in to pivot for the Costco Dirk Nowitzki fadeaway over Eric Gordon.

Carter Jr., who shot 41.3% from deep, has an even higher level of ‘spacing ethos.’

Portis, on the other hand, fired 35.9% from deep (0.1% below league average, for what it’s worth).

The key to a working relationship, though, is making both sides happy. Carter Jr., even as a rookie, demands touches for refined ability and organizational investment. Thus, his number will be called when Markkanen or Lavine isn’t ball-hogging* (*this phrase applies more to the latter).

Here, Markkanen’s clearance fosters Portis’ slip and roll to lay-in off the glass:

By coaxing Wendell’s low-post dominance into jump-shot respectability, another dimension is added to Chicago’s offense.

The dimension could smoothen out a potential sophomore-slump for the Finnish product. By retaining a similar offensive playbook and adding high-low actions, Hoiberg unlocks an enhanced version of Robin Lopez.

Yes, the towers are talented shooters. Even more so, shooting is the appetizer to an entree of ingredients that make for a balanced and functional pyramid.

5 Comments

  1. Dude, you are writing about sports, not a novel. Stop trying so hard to show off your vocabulary and use of similes, and stick to conveying information. Reading that because of my fantasy interest in Carter Jr. was painful. Less is more.

  2. I’m really getting tired of critics that are saying the Bulls wont be good defensively. If you have Dunn in the backcourt and have Carter Jr and Markannen in the front,that makes at least a halfway decent defensive team even if the other 3 starters are not good defensively. They can afford to focus more on offense and play half hazardly on defense and still look good defensively.

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