Is Lauri Markkanen an NBA All-Star at last because the Utah Jazz brilliantly discovered untapped potential and orchestrated a plan to maximize it in ways that his previous teams never could?
Or is Lauri Markkanen an NBA All-Star — and a starter, no less — at last not because his latest team gifted him an opportunity to be the man, but because he had seized that mantle by force on the strength of his own self-created ascension, irrespective of his new circumstances?
It’s probably not, in all honesty, an either/or conundrum.
What’s inarguable is that the 25-year-old Finnish forward has taken a massive step forward in his sixth professional season, and his first in Salt Lake City. He is, quite definitively, a substantially different player now.
As for the how and why, well, seemingly everyone has a theory.
Suffice it to say, he did it all on his own … with the help of his new team.
A new man …
It would be disingenuous for anyone to say the Jazz knew they were getting an All-Star back in the trade that sent Donovan Mitchell to Cleveland. As owner Ryan Smith noted just days ago, sure, front office execs Danny Ainge and Justin Zanik liked Markkanen — he’s a 7-footer who can shoot; what’s not to like?
But it wasn’t until the day after the trade, when Markkanen put on a jaw-dropping performance for his native Finland in their first game at the Euro Basket tournament in Prague, that the team got the sense that maybe the future draft picks involved in the deal were not the sweetest part of the return.
As the tournament unfolded, “The Finnisher” unleashed a version of himself far superior to anything seen in his NBA career to that point. In the seven games he played there, Markkanen averaged 27.9 points (second-most in the tournament) and 8.1 rebounds (ninth-best), while shooting 54.2% from the field, 40.5% on 3s, and 90.6% at the line. He had three double-doubles. He scored 33 points vs. Israel in the opener, 34 vs. the Czech Republic later in the group stage, and racked up 43 (on 19-for-29 shooting) in a Round of 16 victory over Croatia.
Mike Conley remembers following his new teammate’s progress, his jaw dropping with each successive standout performance, and lusting over the possibility of it translating to the NBA this season.
“I actually watched him this summer when he was competing overseas, and every night it seemed like he was getting 30 or 40 points,” the point guard said before he was traded last week. “And I’m like, ‘He’s actually a lot better than what I expected. Or at least for his home team, he is. And if we can get that guy to show up in Utah, I think he can surprise a lot of people.’”
Jordan Clarkson, meanwhile, claims there was absolutely zero ambiguity on his part when he saw what Markkanen was doing.
“When I saw him playing at Euro Basket, I thought he was gonna be an All-Star, honestly, coming here. That was my expectation, I didn’t expect nothing less,” Clarkson said. “Seeing him do what he does on the court on a nightly basis has been what I expected of him coming in.”
Pretty bold, especially considering that while there were some NBA players in the games Markkanen was playing, it’s not like opposing rosters were littered with top-end talent.
It was more about what the forward was doing, though, rather than who he was doing it against.
His four seasons with the Bulls and his one with the Cavs saw him make incremental improvements to his game, but not particularly substantive ones. Yes, in Cleveland, his role changed somewhat, as he was asked to move from the 4-position to the 3 on the wing to accommodate the team’s triple-big frontcourt lineup, but that was more about his defensive responsibilities.
On the other end, more often than not, he was still primarily merely standing in the corner, serving as an outlet for drive-and-kick penetration plays. There were some midrange jumpers mixed in as well, but not a ton of variety.
That changed with Finland, where he was asked to, by default, do much more — and quickly proved himself capable.
Collin Sexton, who had played just a couple handfuls of games with Markkanen in Cleveland last season before getting hurt, had seen enough glimpses, brief flashes of more in practices and games that, upon their trade to Utah, he boldly declared that fans would be in for “a treat” watching Markkanen. In recent days, he happily basked in an I told you so moment.
“Like I told you guys from the beginning, ‘He’s gonna be amazing for us.’ He’s a spacer — that’s something that he’s shown, that he can shoot it — but also he can put it on the floor and get downhill when needed,” said Sexton. “I feel like, at times, you see so many 3s, 3s, 3s, but then he’s cutting to the basket or curling to the basket and using his athleticism, and you’re starting to see his game just continue to get better.”
The Jazz have, in turn, wisely opted to utilize that newfound versatility.
“He’s just been aggressive. He’s all over the place — he’s basically playing 1 through 5, as far as handling the basketball, he’s playing in the post, he’s playing on the perimeter, he’s playing the 5 position, he’s attacking, he’s shooting 3s,” noted Hawks coach Nate McMillan. “… He’s a tough guard, a tough matchup in the sense that he’s out on the perimeter handling the basketball, he’s coming off of pin-downs, he’s running pick-and-rolls, he’s posting you up. If you put someone smaller on him, he can take them into post, shoot over the top. If you put someone bigger on him, he’s able to run them off screens and move without the basketball. He’s really become a tough matchup for opponents to put a defender on him.”
As opposing coaches have been dissecting Markkanen’s game and assessing what’s most different this season, they can go through a laundry list of technical skills, but it’s a less tangible, more emotive quality that seems to come up time and time again.
“You look at this summer, what he’s done for his country, his confidence level — he’s 25 — you can see that he’s comfortable, playing the game at a high level,” said the Mavericks’ Jason Kidd.
“Markkanen is the No. 1 option, so just giving him that title and just guys knowing ‘We’re going to play through him; this is who we want to play through every single night’ has given him confidence,” added the Clippers’ Ty Lue.
“Well the thing that I’ve seen coming in here is that he’s really making pretty quick decisions when the ball comes to him, and he’s playing with such confidence — when he feels like shooting it, it hits his hands and it’s gone,” concluded the Raptors’ Nick Nurse. “… Just tremendous confidence in his skill is what I’ve noticed the most.”
It’s apparent to current and former teammates, too.
“Assertiveness, aggression, and confidence. I didn’t really get to know him too well [before the Jazz], but his confidence is exuding now,” said guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who was traded just before last week’s deadline. “It’s fun to watch him now because he’s in stride, and he’s trusting himself as a player. He’s come into himself and he’s doing his thing.”
Markkanen himself acknowledged he felt different as a result.
He wasn’t so presumptuous as to assume he’d reach this level, but if nothing else, he figured he’d at least be in a position to make more of an impact with his new team.
“I had a high level of confidence just after the summer I had, he said. “I didn’t write down ‘All-Star’ as a goal for the year — I’m just going day by day and staying in the moment, trying to do whatever it takes to get some wins and build this thing with this team. That’s what I was worried about.”
… In new circumstances
He was focused on the team, and when he showed up for training camp, and they realized what they had, they very quickly became more focused on him.
“From Day 1, he walked into the gym, he stood out with his size and athleticism and versatility and his ability to shoot the ball,” said Conley. “Not a lot of people can do that. We saw it really early.”
Rookie center Walker Kessler laughingly recalled even being a little starstruck by his new teammate.
“It’s funny how everything works, because growing up, when Lauri was first in Chicago or even Arizona, I tried to model my game after him, in high school, offensively,” said Kessler, who noted that he told Markkanen as much back then. “He probably didn’t remember it. I was some rookie in training camp, like, ‘Hey, man, I looked up to you!’ So it’s funny how that works.”
Markkanen and the Jazz would quickly become a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship.
While rookie head coach Will Hardy has been adamant many times this season that the Jazz are not just about one guy, he also acknowledged that it was readily apparent that Markkanen deserved to be the team’s primary offensive option.
And so he went about scheming up ways to take advantage of his strengths.
Yes, Markkanen can iso, but it’s not his forte, so instead, the coach has him in constant motion — cutting cross-court, curling off of pin-downs, slicing through the lane and getting the ball with momentum, so that he can attack opponents on the move.
“When he gets somewhat past his first defender, the array of shots he could shoot because of his length — he maybe hasn’t even blown past you, but he’s just kind of got an angle and he just uses this length and height to score,” said Nurse.
And while the 7-footer is capable of grabbing a rebound and bringing the ball up the court, he’s not the most adept or effective dribbler in the game, and so Hardy isn’t looking to create clear-outs for him 20 feet from the hoop, where defenders can get into his body and disrupt him with physicality, unless they feel he has a definitive speed advantage.
Instead, rather than have Markkanen be the ball-handler, he’s far more often a screen-setter, freeing the initiator, then drifting behind the arc for 3-point attempts.
“I think just the different ways in which coach Hardy’s placing him — he’s putting him coming off pin-downs, he’s handling the ball in pick-and-rolls, he’s posting up,” said Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley. “I think he’s just putting him in so many different areas that it’s hard to pick one spot to guard him, and he’s thriving in that system.”
Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who had Markkanen on his team last season, praised the Jazz for using his former charge in different ways, and the player himself for becoming more versatile and continuing to be adaptable.
In his eyes, Markkanen’s individual success has not come in a vacuum, as pretty-but-empty numbers on a going-nowhere roster, but are serving a greater purpose within a team construct.
“I think it’s opportunities that are being presented, and the situation that they’re in. … Lauri obviously started with us last year and was able to work full time on the perimeter as a 3-man, then he comes here and gets an opportunity, and Will’s put him in great positions. He’s been aggressive, he’s been a stud, no doubt about it,” said Bickerstaff. “… It speaks to Lauri’s self-confidence, but even more so his commitment to the team. And if Will thinks asking him to do X, Y, and Z offensively is going to make the team better, then Lauri is going to do it, because at the end of the day, the only thing he cares about is making the team better.”
The Jazz’s owner told a story about how, after the first of two recent matchups between his team and Dallas, Kidd — whom he considers a personal friend — approached him and said, “Dang … Lauri’s good. You’ve got something there.”
Ahead of the teams’ rematch, the Mavs coach doubled down, going so far as to embrace to the statistical comparison making the rounds between Markkanen’s season and Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki at a similar point in his career.
“It’s not a bad comp. When you look at what they can do — in the sense we’re talking about Dirk at 25, not the end of Dirk’s career — those numbers are exact, so that’s not a bad person to have a comp,” Kidd said. “You talk about one of the best players in the world to be able to play that position and do it on a nightly basis, and Markkanen is going to hold up to that. That’s pretty special.
“… I told Ryan that he is a keeper. Ryan must have been listening to me, I don’t know,” Kidd added. “But when you look at what he’s doing this season, it’s big time.”
While Conley clearly noticed the individual improvements that Markkanen showed off while starring for Finland’s Susijengi, he’s also of the belief that the organization in Utah played a role in the sharpshooter’s long-awaited breakout, too.
The confluence of circumstances all the way around added up to a unique situation.
“I mean, you’ve got coach Hardy and his system and the way he wants to play. You’ve got veterans around him. You’ve got, for him, a clean slate, a new opportunity to be the guy. Just different personnel, culture, fans, venue, arena — whatever you want to put it as, it’s just a whole new experience can unlock a whole new you,” Conley said. “It’s like moving from a different high school and from a different city — you can become whoever you want to be at the next high school; they don’t know who you are, [so] you can be that guy. So for him, it was just kind of restructuring who he is as a basketball player and trying to show people who he is truthfully and who he can become.”
Markkanen, for his part, doesn’t inherently disagree. Every night that he’s asked about his latest stellar performance, he’s quick to first thank his teammates and coaches for putting him in a position to succeed.
Still, on the night when he was announced as an All-Star, he was asked directly how much of a part the Jazz played in that, or if he believed that he’d improved sufficiently on his own that it was a fait accompli.
He grew thoughtful and quiet for a moment, contemplating the query.
And he apparently decided that it’s probably not, in all honesty, an either/or conundrum.
“Everything happens for a reason. I think I’ve gotten better as a player every year, and then just getting the opportunity here in Utah, and just having the right teammates and right staff, and everybody’s buying into the system, it definitely made it a lot [easier],” Markkanen said. “I don’t know what would have happened in some other place, but I mean, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
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