CLEVELAND -- Chicago Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen fulfilled a childhood dream during Tuesday night's 119-112 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers by squaring off against the man he used to cheer for as a kid: LeBron James.
"First of all, it's a dream come true for me," Markkanen said. "Because he was my favorite player growing up. To get to go against him, he's a pretty tough guy to guard."
Markkanen proved to be pretty tough himself in the first half, scoring 17 of his 19 points. After just three games, Markkanen has started opening eyes all over the league, but James has known about the University of Arizona product for a while.
"Very confident," James said of Markkanen. "Watched him a lot at Arizona. Watched him a lot. He wore my shoe a couple times ... he wore my retro Brons a couple times. I like that. I had to stay up very late to watch those Arizona games. A very confident kid, shoot the heck out of the ball. 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."
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg acknowledged after the game that Markkanen has "a chance to be special" as he continues to improve his game.
"He's going to be a heckuva player, man," Hoiberg said. "Just to see him out there battling the way he did against this type of competition on the road says a lot about him."
Hoiberg wouldn't come out and say it, but he knows it will be tough to take the 20-year-old out of the starting lineup when Bobby Portis returns from his eight-game suspension. Hoiberg noted that Markkanen's minutes were cut "by design" on Tuesday, as the Bulls try to keep the rookie balanced after a summer that included playing for Finland in EuroBasket.
"I feel good," Markkanen said. "It's been a lot of minutes the first three games, but I feel good."
Aside from his praise for the Bulls' prized youngster, James said after all the battles he has had with the Bulls over the years, it wasn't tough for him to focus on the rebuilding version he saw for the first time in the regular season Tuesday.
"Well, the past is the past," James said. "I live in the present. And the future is unknown. So I don’t really get involved in the battles over the years. I live in the present. Those guys are who we play, and that’s what I prepare for, so I know the history I’ve had, but dwelling on the past for me is something that I pretty much don’t do much of. I try to focus my energy and effort on what today, what the object is today, and it helped us get a win."