Following the Utah Jazz’s latest victory on Wednesday night, coach Will Hardy was asked about the possibility of forward Lauri Markkanen being announced Thursday evening as a reserve for the coming NBA All-Star Game.
“None of us are hoping. We are all expecting Lauri to be an All-Star,” Hardy said simply.
And why not?
He’s averaging 24.9 points and 8.7 rebounds, shooting 52.0% from the field and 43.2% from 3-point range this season.
And though his performance in the 131-128 victory over the Raptors came after the deadline for Western Conference coaches to make their choices for the reserves in the Feb. 19 showcase, it nevertheless served as something of an exclamation point for his candidacy: 28 points on 7-for-13 shooting from the field, 4 of 9 from the arc, and 10 for 10 at the free-throw line, plus 13 rebounds, one assist, one block, and one steal.
All in carrying a team widely expected to be contending for a top lottery pick, but which finds itself at 27-26.
Malik Beasley echoed Hardy’s claim that no one is merely “hoping” for Markkanen to be selected on Thursday.
“Yeah, we’re all expecting it. We’re definitely expecting it,” he said. “We’re expecting that he gets the call and not hoping.”
Still, the forward conceded that’s exactly the emotion he’s feeling.
“I’m hoping,” he replied to Beasley after overhearing his answer.
Later in the night, Markkanen acknowledged it would be a big deal to him.
“I mean, if it happens, it’s gonna be a great feeling,” he said. “I’ve said from Day 1 when I stepped in the league [that] it’s a dream of mine and a goal of mine on a personal level.”
Immediately afterward, being the stoic and practical Finn that he is, he noted he’d be happy for a bit before getting back to business.
“Then you’ve got bigger goals ahead of you and we’ve got a game on Friday, so getting ready for that,” Markkanen added.
The rest of his team was not ready to let his breakout season and the potential spoils of it go so easily, though.
Walker Kessler, the excellent and exuberant rookie center who dubbed himself Markkanen’s All-Star “campaign manager” in a Jazz-produced video when the team was rolling out its All-Star promotion for “The Finnisher,” joked Wednesday night that he’d written a “term paper” extolling the reasons why his frontcourt-mate deserved the honor.
“The way he plays and the way he affects winning is just unbelievable,” Kessler said. “And his efficiency and just how good he is at so many things. … He’s an unbelievable player — extremely efficient, extremely physical, wants to win above everything. More than that, he’s a great guy, he’s super-humble. It’s a no-brainer.”
Markkanen, sitting next to the Rising Stars tournament selection, replied, deadpan: “That sounded like I paid you, but I didn’t.”
Maybe he’s a no-brainer choice, maybe not.
He certainly hasn’t been a unanimous choice among the various media personalities who’ve opined about who they’d choose for the Western Conference’s seven backup players.
Markkanen will have competition for a frontcourt spot from the likes of Lakers superstar Anthony Davis, Kings do-everything big man Domantas Sabonis, sharp-shooting Clippers wing Paul George, perhaps even from über-athletic Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon, as a reward to Denver for having the West’s best record at the break.
Meanwhile, with the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant and OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander appearing to be near-locks for the backcourt spots, the conversation around the conference’s pair of wild-card picks has most revolved around a cadre of other guards — the Blazers’ Damian Lillard, Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox, the Wolves’ Anthony Edwards, and Phoenix’s Devin Booker.
The first-year Jazz player’s teammates, however, can’t conceive of him being excluded from the weekend set to take place at Vivint Arena.
“He’s an All-Star — he knows it, we know it. We’re just waiting for his name to be called,” said Mike Conley. “We’re all super-excited. Fingers crossed that everything goes the right way, but we’re very confident of it. He deserves it. He’s done everything for us.”
And Thursday, right around 5 p.m. MT in an announcement set to take place as part of TNT’s pregame coverage, Markkanen will find out if that “everything” paid off.