Lauri Markkanen’s belated breakout for the Utah Jazz busts a myth about NBA development

Though some have found it curious that the Utah Jazz star has taken such a leap forward in his sixth season, at the age of 25, colleagues and opponents alike say there’s no fixed timetable for progress.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) as the Utah Jazz host the Los Angeles Clippers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.

Back in September when the Utah Jazz traded star Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was assumed by many that the best player they were getting in return was guard Collin Sexton.

He was viewed as, perhaps, a Mitchell Lite — a less-explosive athlete, maybe, but a downhill force, an improving long-range shooter, and someone who could, with the right coaching, transform from a high-volume scorer into a more efficient option.

Sexton remains a work in progress for now, a change-of-pace sparkplug still learning how and when to change gears, to maximize spacing when playing without the ball, to more consistently register an impact defensively.

Lauri Markkanen, meanwhile, has been a revelation. The 7-footer from Finland has finally shrugged off the “underachiever” label which has dogged him since his early seasons in Chicago, finally unlocked the physical gifts which have fully weaponized his three-level shooting.

Few seem to doubt at this point that “The Finnisher” is primed to become a first-time All-Star. In fact, their only lingering question about the season Markkanen is having seems to be: Why did it take so long?

No discussion of his breakout campaign, it would appear, is complete without mention of him being 25 years old and in his sixth season.

The thing is, this narrative is apparently not nearly so compelling to those within the NBA as it is to those on the outside.

“I think it happens all the time,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said before the Jazz’s 120-102 victory over Charlotte. “I think that’s the misnomer about our league. People talk about player development like it’s only for the 20-, 21-year-olds. The best players get better every year.”

He pointed to some former Hornets stars whom Jazz fans are familiar with — Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, Al Jefferson — as examples of players who made significant additions to their games past the initial seasons of their respective careers.

Further, he added, “LeBron [James] gets better every year at something. Look at Steph [Curry] — he wasn’t 19 when he was an MVP candidate.”

Markkanen likewise has reached new heights this season.

His 24.8 points are a career-high by more than 6 per game. His 52.1% from the field is more than 4% better than his previous best. His 42.9% from deep is nearly 3% better than ever before. The 1.8 assists he’s averaging are a new personal best. And his 8.8 rebounds are only slightly below the 9.0 he averaged in his second season.

Veteran forward Rudy Gay, who is in a daily shooting group with Markkanen during post-practice sessions, believes that the Finn’s starring role for his national team at the Euro Basket tournament this past fall set the stage for him to make such a leap.

The Susijengi were dependent upon him to be a star, Markkanen worked to expand his game to become one, and he carried that role over to the Jazz from Day 1 of training camp.

“Well, I mean, his focus has been on another level. I’ve always noticed his game, [but] he’s made me a bigger fan than I was before. I think he’s just starting to figure it out,” Gay said. “… He’s really come into his own, he’s starting to figure it out. And opportunity — he’s getting an opportunity here and he’s leading us. He’s leading us. That’s what this game is about — taking advantage of opportunities.”

Jazz guard Mike Conley spoke of Markkanen taking advantage of opportunities, as well.

There certainly was some degree of fortuitousness in the circumstances — a team undergoing a massive overhaul finds itself in need of someone willing and able to step up and assume the responsibility of being the primary option, and at that moment, a 7-foot-tall shooting machine happens to come along and catch new coach Will Hardy’s eye.

This was not as rote or as fickle as that.

Markkanen’s ascension was not mere chance, the random confluence of opportunity and availability. Yes, the new situation and the new coach’s open mind were important components of the equation. But the bigger factor by far is that his new status was not merely the result of him being handed a bigger role, but him taking it.

He did not come in talking about being the man — he instead simply showed that he was the man. And he had the goods to back it up, to the point that it was unquestioned.

“Guys [were] just really diving in and saying, ‘Hey, Lauri, be yourself, be confident, go score 40.’ We’re [encouraging] him to score 50, 60 points, and he’s having fun with that,” Conley said. “I think he’s always had that in him — it’s not like he just improved over a six-month span. He obviously could go from what he was to now; I think he’s always been capable of doing it, and this location just brought it out of him.”

To Conley’s point, and to the bigger picture in general, it’s not that Markkanen was trudging along all this time fixated on the wrong things, only to suddenly discover the skeleton key that fully unlocked his game.

It’s been a process of trial and error, of constant refinement, of tweaking his approach. Yes, he’s attempting and making more 3-pointers than he ever has before, but he’s also already shattered his single-season best for dunks, too. And is getting to the free-throw line with more frequency as well.

The argument is relevant beyond Markkanen, of course. Just a few short weeks ago, a tweet from a fan declared that “Ochai [Agbaji] being such a massive bust so quickly remains super sad for the Jazz.” The 22-year-old Agbaji quite memorably instantly followed with his best performances of the season, pointedly demonstrating that his future is not yet written in stone.

Markkanen was never labeled a bust. Still, after being drafted No. 7 overall and (somewhat ironically, given what would transpire years later) considered the centerpiece return of a massive trade involving star Jimmy Butler, he was considered a quality rotation piece whose ceiling had proven to be somewhat underwhelming.

That perspective has, quite belatedly, changed now, of course.

And yet another Jazz teammate sees no reason why Markkanen cannot ascend further still.

“I feel like the prime years are, like, 29, 30, 31. He’s playing really good right now and he’s gonna continue to get better,” said Malik Beasley. “He has a great body to do a lot of things. At 7 foot, at his height, he can do a lot more — I feel like he can only go up from here if he wants to. And I believe he has that type of mindset.”

Hardy, like his colleague in Charlotte, thinks it’s fundamentally wrong to assume that a player is essentially a finished product by the time they reach the age where they are or would be a college senior.

“I mean, I’m glad nobody judges me based on who I was when I was 22,” Hardy said. “You can always improve.”

Few highly-touted 19-year-olds, he said, come in fully equipped to handle the all rigors of the league. Even if the physical tools are there, the mental and emotional maturity often need to do some catching up.

Fans and pundits and sometimes coaches and general managers are frequently too quick — in this era of both instant gratification and shortened timelines — to label a player a bust, to place an immutable label on someone who remains a work in progress.

There must be organizational planning and patience: an honest assessment of who and what the player is at the outset, what he can contribute now, and what he might be capable of adding, one year, two years, even five years down the road. Phased goal-setting is necessary simply because it’s not realistic to expect everything all at once.

“It’s funny that Lauri is coming into his own — he’s 25 years old. And so again, think about your own life — 25 is an age where maybe you start to feel a little bit more comfortable just about who you are, no matter what you’re doing for a profession,” Hardy said. “… I do think that it would be very short-sighted of us to look at a 22-year-old or a 21-year-old or a 25-year-old and say, ‘Oh, that’s it, they can’t get any better.’ One of the fun things about basketball is you can always get better. I’ve been spoiled to coach some Hall of Fame players and to watch them work at age 37 and still tweaking little parts of their game. That’s what makes basketball awesome.”

For his part, Markkanen is taking it all in stride.

He began this season by noting that believed he was capable of more than what he’d shown to this point, and is thrilled — in a stoic, Nordic sort of way — that he’s been able to prove it.

And yet, the opportunities for further development keep coming, even within this season. His latest endeavor? Counter-adjusting to the adjustments defenses are making to him, now that he’s proven to be a viable No. 1 option for the first time in his career.

“That’s one area where I need to grow, obviously. It’s kind of first time that they’re throwing different coverages on me all the time, so I just feel like I’m seeing something different every every night and trying to prepare for that and then adjust when the game goes on,” Markkanen said. “… It’s just the next step I’m gonna have to take.”

As it turns out, being 25 years old does not make him so feeble or invalid as to make such steps terribly difficult.