Lauri Markkanen and Coby White embrace their new roles off the bench, helping the Chicago Bulls beat the Toronto Raptors 122-113

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Jamal Collier, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read
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At the shootaround Thursday morning before the Chicago Bulls’ 122-113 victory over the Toronto Raptors later that night in Tampa, Fla., coach Billy Donovan took a moment to speak with Lauri Markkanen and Coby White.

Once considered future franchise cornerstones, Markkanen and White have had complicated tenures with the Bulls. Both saw their roles negatively affected by the trade deadline, pushed to the bench after beginning the season as the two most prominent scoring options behind Zach LaVine. Earlier this week, Donovan acknowledged “they’re probably not going to be featured guys” going forward.

However, Donovan wanted to take a moment to tell Markkanen and White just how much he appreciated their team-first attitudes in response to coming off the bench. And judging by their performance Thursday, perhaps Markkanen and White could become leaders of the Bulls reformed bench unit.

Markkanen (18 points) and White (15 points) combined for 33 points on 20 field goals off the bench. Along with a 14-point, 10-rebound double-double from Daniel Theis, Bulls reserves dominated a shorthanded Raptors bench unit and outscored them 47-20.

“I still believe they are core guys, I still believe they are extremely important pieces to our team,” Donovan said about Markkanen and White. “They’re important to our team, but I give them a lot of credit that a lot of stuff has changed and a lot of guys have had to make sacrifices.

“As young players, all of a sudden things change and you start to understand that everybody has got to do different things to try to help the team and put the team in position to win. I appreciate not only the way those guys have handled it but the way they have worked and have tried to come to games ready to play and to contribute.”

Indeed, the Bulls are starting to look like a different team after overhauling their roster and style of play on the fly after the trade deadline. They picked up their third win a row Thursday, taking advantage of the Raptors — who were limited to just eight players thanks to a combination of injuries and suspensions — to add an extra game between themselves and Toronto, the team directly behind them in the standings.

The bench provided the perfect complement for another strong night from LaVine, who had 22 points and a season-high 13 assists, and Nikola Vucevic, who added 22 points and seven rebounds.

“We’re going to need everybody,” LaVine said. “We need (Markkanen and White) to play their games still, because every night isn’t going to be perfect. So whatever energy we can get from them. They want to come in and play well and continue to play well. We’re all starting to figure out each other a little bit more each game. Hopefully we can keep it going.”

White began the season with the opportunity to stick as the starting point guard, but the second-year player has not mastered the areas of his game the team required from him. He is still developing as a passer and decision maker and has not shot the ball well consistently enough to remain a scoring threat each night.

The Bulls were aggressive at the trade deadline and rumored to be in the market for a point guard. But White’s name did not really come up as a potential trade chip. The organization still values him, and getting him involved in lineups with other shot creators, such as Tomas Satoransky, Thad Young and Vucevic could allow White’s game to flourish.

White’s future with the team seems more certain than that of Markkanen, who in his final year before restricted free agency has moved to the bench. He’s also learning how to play small forward for the first time in his NBA career, not what anyone would have expected from the player arguably projected to be most crucial to the team’s rebuild.

This was supposed to be a “prove-it” year for Markkanen after contract-extension talks failed during the offseason, but perhaps he still can prove his value by providing a scoring boost off the bench. In his first five games in that role, he is averaging 11.8 points and shooting 62%, including 53% from 3.

“I appreciate him appreciating what we’re doing,” Markkanen said about his chat with Donovan. “That’s all we can do. We all have to make sacrifices — not just me, Coby, I think everybody’s sacrificed with the new guys coming in. Everybody plays a part in it. ... Everybody’s sacrificed, and all we can control is what we’re doing. So that’s my mindset going in.”