Utah Jazz’s Lauri Markkanen chosen for All-Star Game

A breakout season while carrying his team to surprising success earns the sixth-year forward the first All-Star nod of his career, as he’s selected by Western Conference coaches as a reserve in the game.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) as the Utah Jazz host the New York Knicks, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022.

When the Utah Jazz traded Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert this past offseason, they knew they were losing a pair of bona fide multi-time All-Stars.

And while they were thrilled with the haul of future draft picks and young prospects they got in return, the team’s decision-makers didn’t realize at the time that they were also getting an All-Star back in the bargain.

On Thursday evening, though, it became official.

Lauri Markkanen achieved a lifelong dream when he was selected among the Western Conference reserves for the NBA All-Star Game, which will take place in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 19.

“Extremely happy. Excited. That’s kind of — on a personal level — what you’ve been working for,” Markkanen said Thursday night in an interview session at the Jazz’s practice facility. “… You remember everything you’ve gone through in your journey, and everything happens for a reason. I was so happy when it happened, but then slowly started thinking of the stuff I had to go through to get here.”

The sixth-year forward had a star-making turn for his native Finland this past fall at the Euro Basket tournament — his team’s first game came the day after he was traded from the Cavaliers to the Jazz — and he carried that performance into what would become a breakout NBA season.

The sharpshooting 7-footer is averaging a career-high 24.9 points (more than eight points better than his career average, and more than six points better than his previous best season). And he’s doing it while shooting a career-best 52.0% from the field and 43.2% from 3-point range. His 8.7 rebounds are just three-tenths off his career-high, and he’s also setting a new personal best in assists (1.8).

Meanwhile, a Jazz team widely expected to be competing for a top lottery pick is instead above .500 and in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

Markkanen’s prolific-yet-efficient offensive explosion has come as his game has diversified. During his previous stops in Chicago and Cleveland, he was frequently reduced to an outlet option, spotting up and launching corner 3s. In Utah, he’s more frequently on the move — cutting through the lane, coming around pin-down and flare screens, relocating off of setting screens himself for catch-and-shoot 3s.

As a result, he’s not only attempting a career-high 7.2 shots from beyond the arc, but also shattering his previous best with 5.8 free-throw attempts per game. He’s also long-since obliterated his previous best for dunks in a season — with 29 regular-season Jazz games yet to go.

“To consistently score 20 points in a game, you have to do it in a variety of ways,” coach Will Hardy said after Wednesday’s win over Toronto. “… Lauri’s growth, in terms of how he’s thinking the game offensively, has been fun to be up close to every day. We’ve seen the games where he makes seven, eight 3s, and those are nice, but you can’t rely on that. If your life is all jump shots, life is hard. And he has so much more to give.”

That’s certainly been the case to this point.

When Markkanen was traded to the Jazz, he acknowledged some initial mixed feelings, having been under the impression he would be a long-term fixture in Cleveland, and noting that this was the first time he’d been traded that it had come as a complete surprise to him.

Still, he resolved to make the best of his new situation, and quickly asserted himself as the team’s best player.

In the process, he became one of the league’s best, too — finally bringing an end to the perception that he was a supremely talented athlete who had never quite lived up to his promise.

“Whatever anybody thought of our players when trades were made, whatever anybody thought of our team before the season started, I would say a lot of those people were wrong — and Lauri being an All-Star would be a giant stamp on that,” Hardy said. “… You never want to judge a player too early. There’s context to everything in the NBA, there’s situations that are good for some guys and not good for other guys, and sometimes you just have to find your footing.

“I think it would speak to Lauri, I think it would speak to his maturity, his work ethic, and the way that he’s navigated the early part of his NBA career,” Hardy added. “It would speak a lot to his teammates here and how much trust they put in him. He’s the first person to say his success is not because he dribbles the ball up the court and makes a move and shoots; he plays within the context of our group. He wants to win and they want to win, and they know that he’s the guy.”

Now, Markkanen is part of a more select group.

After LeBron James (Lakers), Nikola Jokic (Nuggets), Luka Doncic (Mavericks), Steph Curry (Warriors), and Zion Williamson (Pelicans) were announced as the West’s starters last week, Markkanen was named a reserve during Thursday evening’s TNT broadcast along the likes of Ja Morant (Grizzlies), Damian Lillard (Blazers), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Thunder), Domantas Sabonis (Kings), Paul George (Clippers), and Jaren Jackson Jr. (Grizzlies).

The Eastern Conference starters are Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), Kevin Durant (Nets), Jayson Tatum (Celtics), Kyrie Irving (Nets), and Mitchell (Cavaliers). The East reserves announced Thursday include Joel Embiid (76ers), Jaylen Brown (Celtics), Tyrese Haliburton (Pacers), Bam Adebayo (Heat), DeMar DeRozan (Bulls), Jrue Holiday (Bucks), and Julius Randle (Knicks).

James and Antetokounmpo will serve as team captains, and — about a half-hour or so ahead of the All-Star Game’s tipoff — will draft their teams (starters first, then reserves) playground-style right then and there.

Team James will be coached by Denver’s Michael Malone. Team Giannis will be coached by Boston’s Joe Mazzulla.

Markkanen’s was the penultimate name announced, and he acknowledged feeling the nervousness as player after player went by and he wasn’t yet among them.

“I was at home on the couch with my family and my agent — so it was a little bit of a nerve-wracking experience,” he said. “… When they announced Paul George — I knew the guys I was competing against, so that was kind of a nerve-wracking moment waiting ’til the next name.”