Spurs Bulls Basketball

Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen drives to the basket against Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge during the first half Saturday in Chicago.

Kamil Krzaczynski, Associated Press

CHICAGO — The scary thing about Lauri Markkanen isn't that he's 7-feet tall and a natural shooter.

The 20-year-old rookie plays like he's 30 and a veteran -- fearless and efficient.

Markkanen is the Bulls' future, a big reason for fans to follow the young team's total rebuild through lean times, which are certain.

"He's a wonderful player. He's aggressive, smart, and obviously he can shoot the basketball," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after Saturday's win over the Bulls. "He's only going to get better and better."

That's coming from a Hall of Fame coach with five NBA championships who is tough to impress.

Not since Derrick Rose have the Bulls had someone to build their team around. No one wants controversy within their franchise, but Bobby Portis punching Nikola Mirotic in the face at practice was the best thing to happen to Markkanen.

With Mirotic still recovering from a concussion and scheduled to have facial surgery for broken bones, Markkanen found himself thrust into the starting lineup and has not embarrassed himself.

"He's learning on the fly and is going to have ups and downs," coach Fred Hoiberg said Saturday. "But he's played pretty darn well for everything he's been through."

Prior to Tuesday's date in Cleveland, Markkanen was averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds and 35 minutes per game while banging bodies with the likes of Serge Ibaka, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol.

"It's been a learning process. Strong guys. Good players. It's awesome to play against them and learn," said Markkanen, the pride of Finland. "I've been OK but I can get much better."

Rookies often go into a shell and can't adjust when their game is off. Markkanen's strength is his three-point shooting, but he was 3 for 8 against the Spurs and so he wisely decided to attack the basket.

"I have to go in strong and try to finish," he said. "Every game is going to be a battle, so I'm going to work on my game to be as good as I can be."

Markkanen remains well-grounded and humble, but was caught off guard by Pop's flattering comments.

"It feels weird hearing that, to be honest with you," he said. "I got a long way to go. Got to get better."

Finns are known to share most virtues of their Scandinavian neighbors, including uncompromising work ethic and an inclusive notion of equality.

That's a great cornerstone to have.

Good job, Bulls.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.