The hope was for Markkanen to ascend to All-Star status or near it, but he instead looked like a shell of his former promising self in the first six weeks of the regular season. Markkanen’s scoring average, shooting percentages and rebounding rate all dipped significantly. If he wasn’t stranded on the perimeter for long stretches in the Bulls’ revamped offensive system, he was too often losing the ball in his limited forays to the hoop. Markkanen even went as far as to acknowledge that he was in his own head.
Finally as the calendar turned to December, the 22-year-old Markkanen found his better form. Markkanen had averaged 18.7 points on 52.6% shooting overall and 43.5% shooting from 3-point range in his last six games entering Friday.
And it’s that context which made coach Jim Boylen’s use of Markkanen on Friday night so bewildering.
On a night to forget, the Bulls fell 83-73 to the Hornets at the United Center, dropping to 9-18. Their 73 points were the fewest in any NBA game this season.
Nearly every player to take the floor turned in a reprehensible showing on the offensive end, but it was Markkanen’s absence for a long stretch in the second half that was most alarming. With 6:45 left in the third quarter, Markkanen exited as Thad Young entered.
Markkanen then sat until the 3:58 mark of the fourth quarter. Touted as a cornerstone piece for the franchise, he was a bystander for 14 minutes, 47 seconds straight of game time amid his best stretch of a trying season.
“Well, I played him more in the first half,” Boylen said when asked why Markkanen sat for so long. “I played him almost the whole first quarter. I looked at him and I thought he was breathing pretty hard in that first quarter, so I gave him a little break and got him back in there. Nothing – you ride with some guys for a bit, you see how it goes, you bring them back. It’s just basketball.”
Markkanen played 25:34, just a bit more than half the game and about 4 1/2 fewer than his average. Young played 26:33. It wasn’t lost on anyone that the distribution of minutes came just a day after the Sun-Times reported that Young was displeased with his playing time, having averaged 21.6 minutes entering Friday. Young has expressed his desire to the Bulls and the public to play more.
Apparently that’s all it took for Boylen and the Bulls to be persuaded. Because while he explained “that first group was not good,” the performances of Markkanen and Young were rather similar.
Markkanen had scored seven points on 3-of-8 shooting in the first half. Young had scored four points on 2-of-6 shooting in the first half.
Markkanen opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer, then missed three shots in a row before being yanked. He didn’t attempt a shot in the final 3:58 upon returning, finishing with 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting. Young had 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting and provided steadier defense than Markkanen, as he usually does.
Markkanen took the high road – as he always has – in discussing his prolonged absence.
“I didn’t talk to coach about that,” Markkanen said. “Obviously, Thad played well. That’s coach’s decision. I think it was obvious for me – I know I can play much better. I didn’t play at the level we need to play.
“You get a little cold (sitting), but it’s part of it. Obviously, you get warm again pretty quickly. Guys do it all the time. That’s not an excuse at all.
“I wasn’t really that surprise. Of course, I want to be out there on the floor.”
In the aftermath, Boylen was asked whether the decreased playing time could hurt Markkanen’s confidence just as he turned a corner. He expressed little consideration for that.
“I don’t think so,” Boylen said. “I don’t think so. I think he understands that I’m going to ride with guys that are playing well or guys that make the run, just like I had with him. And so I overplayed him in the first half, right? And then the second half, it wasn’t the same rotation. That’s just part of the game.”
Boylen likes to make references to using feel rather than rigid rules in his coaching decisions. He has a “scripted rotation, but it’s not in stone.”
On Friday, he again trusted his gut but not Markkanen, arguably the most important piece of the Bulls’ future.
“He’s not going to play every minute of every game,” Boylen said of Markkanen.
And sometimes, as was the case Friday, not even 26 of them.