The 2017-2018 NBA season got off to a rocky start for the Bulls before they even took the court. Just days before their season opener, a physical altercation took place at practice between power forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic in which Portis punched Mirotic in the face. Portis received a team imposed eight-game suspension as a result, and Mirotic was hospitalized with facial injuries that will require surgery.

While this made the Bulls thin at the power forward position, it also gave an opportunity for some younger talent to shine. Enter 20-year-old Lauri Mark

kanen, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. The native of Finland wowed the basketball world last season at the University of Arizona and at the EuroBasket tournament this past summer. After showing some flashes during the Bulls' preseason slate (11.7 points, 5.0 rebounds per game), excitement and anticipation began to build around his potential.

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With Portis and Mirotic both out of action for the foreseeable future, Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg had no choice but to insert Markkanen into the starting lineup. As an NBA rookie, it’s either sink or swim, and so far Markkanen has been able to keep his head above water despite the fact that the Bulls are 0-3 to start the season.

The 7-footer is averaging 16.3 points (second on the team to Justin Holiday) and 9.3 rebounds (team leader) in 34.0 minutes per game. He is shooting 44.7 percent from the field and has converted 10-of-22 shots from 3-point range (he’s the first NBA player to make that many shots from beyond the arc in his first three games). From an offensive standpoint, he fits well into the “space and pace” system and Hoiberg is finally implementing this season.

While his defensive skills are still a work in progress, he has made strides on that side of the ball. Of course, the Bulls as a whole are a mess on defense, as they are the fourth-worst team in the league in terms of defensive rating (111.4). Markkanen has done his best to help offset those glaring holes.

He has continued to attack the glass to finish defensive possessions (24 of his 28 total rebounds of them have come on that end), and while he will likely never be an elite rim protector, he has the potential to hold his own against quicker guards in switching situations if he learns how to properly adjust his positioning and play angles. He’s also shown discipline, as he only has six total personal fouls and has yet to get into foul trouble this season.

While Markkanen stands tall, he’s only 230 pounds, and that’s given him problems against post players with a strength advantage. But that part of his game will improve as he continues to hit the weight room. He’ll also catch up with his knowledge of the game as time goes on, and if he keeps playing this pace, he’ll only continue to get better. He already has a strong endorsement from LeBron James.

"A very confident kid, shoot the heck out of the ball," James said of Markkanen after the Cavs' 119-112 win over the Bulls on Tuesday night. "He's going to continue to get better. The best thing about it is he's getting an opportunity. If he makes mistakes, he can learn on the fly, but he's going to play a lot. He's good. It seems like he's learning. He's a good player."

With only three games under his belt, there’s five more opportunities for Markkanen to make an early impression before Portis can return to the team (Mirotic will be out even longer). Markkanen might even be able to play his way into the starting lineup on a more permanent basis. He can do that if he does three things over these next five games (starting against the Hawks on Thursday): stay healthy, continue with his offensive consistency and improve on defense.

The Bulls will probably miss out on the postseason this year, but if Markkanen continues along this trend line (and avoids succumbing to the constant drama surrounding the team), Chicago may have a solid building block for the future.