Lauri Markkanen might be the NBA’s Most Improved Player thanks to a patient path to stardom

From family hockey games to his All-Star breakthrough, this is how the Utah Jazz forward became the player he is today.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) as the Utah Jazz host the San Antonio Spurs, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

“No matter how much you sleep in winter, cucumbers grow in the spring.”

That’s a quote — translated from Finnish — from Henrik Dettmann, former Finnish men’s national basketball team coach, when he was asked about the up-and-coming Lauri Markkanen.

It’s an old Japanese proverb, he says. It references both the preparations and patience required to see the fruits of success. No matter the quantity and urgency of work and time put into an endeavor, results will come when they’re supposed to. The development of a prospect, of a person, cannot be rushed.

Here’s the twist: Dettman said this in 2016, then about the vast promise of the 18-year-old Markkanen as he was on the verge of entering the U.S. to play college basketball for Arizona. In the ensuing years, Markkanen became the best Finnish basketball player ever. He then also fell short of his NBA expectations, relatively stuck in mid-level production since his rookie campaign in Chicago.

That is, until this season. Now, Markkanen has shocked the world by averaging over 25 points per game, being named an All-Star starter, and leading the Utah Jazz to one of the most unexpected records in the league. He’s currently listed as the odds-on favorite for the Most Improved Player award in his sixth NBA season.

It took some time. But finally, for Markkanen, spring has arrived.

Working through cold

Born in 1997, Lauri grew up in a competitive household.

His father, Pekka Markkanen, was a professional basketball player himself. The 6-10 Pekka played one season in America with the Kansas Jayhawks. He famously defended Shaquille O’Neal at LSU in an unexpected early-season victory (Pekka limited Shaq to just 10 points), and contributed to KU’s 150-95 drubbing of Kentucky.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) loses the ball as the Utah Jazz host the San Antonio Spurs, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023.

But as the season wore on and he found his NBA draft stock to be below his hopes, he decided to return to Finland after the end of the year. While Pekka had a very solid European career, winning three Finnish Basketball Player of the Year awards from 1989 to 1996, his decision to leave America has been described as “the great what-if story of Finnish basketball.”

Pekka married Riikka Markkanen, herself having a stint on the Finnish women’s basketball team. Then came sons Eero (a professional soccer player who once played for Real Madrid), Miikka (himself a pro basketball player in the youth ranks before injuries ended his career), and, finally, Lauri.

“During Christmas, people always have traditions they do,” Pekka told the Chicago Tribune in 2017. “We had a traditional thing where we played ice hockey and basketball. Whoever was in the house — grandparents, mothers — had to play. And everybody wanted to play.”

Even among this family of athletes, Lauri’s approach was unique.

“All of our kids have a professional aptitude for sport, but I have never met a person who is so focused on one thing,” Pekka said. “Sometimes, I get tired of that … ‘Can he talk something else?’ But that’s why he’s so special, I think.”

As a result, the stories of Lauri’s work ethic as a kid are nearly neverending. Some examples:

• As a 10-year-old, Lauri kept a diary, tallying how much he practiced basketball. His dad read it once he left for Arizona, and found that he was practicing 4 1/2 hours per day, on average.

• His parents had to establish a curfew on Lauri’s practice (before 7 a.m and after 10 p.m.) otherwise his shooting and dribbling would keep the rest of the family awake.

• Finland’s famously cold weather didn’t stop Lauri’s efforts. “Playing outside in the winter is just a matter of clothing,” Markkanen once said in an interview with the Helsingin Sanomat.

A pivotal point

This work had made the younger Markkanen the most highly-touted prospect in Finnish basketball. But on the European stage, Markkanen was just another prospect.

Basketball Without Borders (BWB) is a collaborative project between the NBA and FIBA (the organizing body of international basketball) to bring developmental camps to the best youth basketball players around the world. In 2014, Markkanen was the only Finn to be invited to the European camp, in a small gym in Rome.

Lauri Markkanen plays in the 2014 Europe Basketball Without Borders camp in Rome, Italy. (Photo courtesy Basketball Without Borders)

Only one other future NBA player — Ante Zizic — played in the camp. But by all accounts, Markkanen wasn’t much of a standout in Rome. He was still too skinny, and didn’t impact the game much beyond shooting. So when BWB held its first-ever “Global” camp in New York City at All-Star Weekend in 2015, including the world’s best 40 youth prospects, Markkanen wasn’t on the initial roster.

But then, something changed. Neither Markkanen, nor BWB staffers, can remember the specifics: either someone’s visa to the United States fell through, or an injury occurred. For some reason, a spot in the prestigious inaugural camp opened up, just three days before it was slated to begin.

The program first called Hanno Mottola — a former University of Utah player who had by then become one of Markkanen’s coaches — to see if Markkanen would be eligible and willing to take the spot. Mottola called Markkanen and his family on Monday afternoon, Lauri remembers, and asked if Lauri would be able to fly to New York City on Thursday.

Markkanen not only played in the 3-day camp on short notice, he popped.

“I think in the New York camp, Lauri had one of the best shooting performances we’ve ever had in Basketball Without Borders,” Chris Ebersole, who oversees the NBA’s international elite basketball development programs, said. “But you could see that he was rounding into a more well-rounded player. He wasn’t just a shooter, he was also impacting the game in other ways — driving the ball, surprising with dunks on people and things like that.”

Lauri Markkanen plays in the 2015 Global Basketball Without Borders camp in New York City. (Photo courtesy Basketball Without Borders)

DraftExpress called him “the breakout performer” of the camp. He immediately got college attention from some of the best basketball schools in the country, and narrowed his list down to North Carolina (coached by Roy Williams, who his father played for at Kansas), Utah (Hanno Mottola’s old school), and Arizona. Markkanen picked the latter, thanks to their development plan and open power-forward position.

Markkanen says that the last-second invite, and his performance that weekend, changed his life. After all the attention, and after making his college decision, for his final year of high school, Markkanen moved out of his family’s home.

“I wanted to get used to living alone, to being more independent, so the difference when I got to Arizona wasn’t that big,” Markkanen said.

One final act of preparation before making it to American basketball.

Patience before the pinnacle

Markkanen delivered on his promise for Arizona, playing extremely well for the Wildcats and leading them to a 32-5 season. The quality play led him to be drafted seventh overall. The team that drafted him, the Chicago Bulls, traded away six-time All-Star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the rights to the No. 7 pick, so expectations were high.

But Markkanen immediately impressed there, too. Playing for untested NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg, Markkanen averaged 15 points per game and was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie first team, alongside Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma. Year two also went well, improving his scoring to 18 points per game on solid efficiency.

However, Markkanen’s third and fourth year were near-disastrous. Markkanen’s playing time dropped substantially. So too did his scoring averages and rebounding numbers, as did his stock around the NBA. What happened?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lauri Markkanen (23) is all smiles as he warms up for the second half of the 2023 NBA All-Star Game at Vivint Area, on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023.

Markkanen doesn’t like to talk about it. He’s been asked in a million ways about the causes of the downturn, and always finds a way to sidestep the question. Clearly, he and then-head coach Jim Boylen didn’t see eye-to-eye on his basketball role, but Markkanen is still most comfortable outside of the controversy that comes with being honest about the roughest part of his basketball journey.

Perhaps the most revealing Markkanen was, though, was with Finnish podcast Urheilucast, where he talked about the “time clocks” Boylen instituted. “From what I understand, this was the norm at like factories back in the day? I guess it did what it was supposed to, guys came in early. Usually it was the old guys telling the rookies to go punch in everybody’s time cards, though.”

And about his own role: “I had 80 touches per game the past two seasons, this season the touches dropped to 40. Don’t get me wrong, I had some plays drawn with me in mind, but it’s just different. When I spoke with Jim [Boylen], we talked about how I should concentrate on getting rebounds and then leading the fast break. But it’s just really hard getting 40 defensive rebounds.”

One big point of contention was what Bulls coaches wanted to do with Markkanen’s body. The team put him on a strength plan that sought to bulk him up and make him more of a bruising center — indeed, Markkanen played a majority of minutes at center in his fourth NBA season. But it wasn’t a success: he battled injuries in his last two seasons in Chicago, playing only 50 games in each season, and then started to come off the bench by the end of year four.

Instead of extending his contract, the Bulls traded Markkanen to Cleveland.

Markkanen decided he’d, from that point forward, start forming his own development plan, listening to his own team of coaches about how to grow his game and his body. Luckily, the Cavs’ vision for Markkanen aligned with his own as a long-term versatile forward. He was thrilled to be in Cleveland, and built a house there — a gym (complete with sauna to remind him of his home country) was completed on the day after the Cavaliers’ season ended.

The Cavaliers traded him to Utah as part of the Donovan Mitchell trade four months later.

A home in Utah

Jazz head coach Will Hardy had heard the rumors of what people had to say about Markkanen — both his game and his off-court personality.

“I think there was a narrative early on with Lauri: that he was soft,” Hardy said. “The things that I assumed about him were the things that I had maybe heard about him and his personality and his demeanor.”

But Hardy has a philosophy about judgment — he doesn’t like to judge someone until he has the chance to work with them personally. “I try to build relationships with people, to give everybody a chance to take people at face value. Because I do believe that situations and context have a lot to do with things.”

And upon working with Markkanen, Hardy found that the rumors didn’t match with Markkanen’s current reality.

“Like, he’s just not soft. He’s not soft mentally. He’s not soft physically,” Hardy said. “The European perimeter-based 7-footer; it’s easy to just stamp that label on somebody, to go ‘oh, he’s soft.’ He is not. He plays a very physical style. His body has matured, he’s physically strong. He’s mentally very, very tough. He takes a beating in the games, and I coach him pretty hard. He’s as steady as anybody I’ve been around from an approach standpoint. That was very quick to kind of wipe away.”

As the Jazz built their team in training camp this offseason, Hardy began to give more and more responsibility to Markkanen. At first, it was just a green light to attack: the Jazz’s offense would try to find Markkanen in advantageous spots, then Hardy wanted Markkanen to be as aggressive as possible in either shooting or driving — just as his Finnisher nickname indicates. It went exceptionally well, as Markkanen and Hardy’s Jazz got out to a 10-3 record.

Then, in a team film session in December, and in response to a couple of close losses, the coaches felt confident in giving a new decree: Markkanen was the Jazz’s best player. In clutch moments, the Jazz needed to get him the ball when possible.

Markkanen responded to that, too, raising his scoring average from 22 points per game in October and November to 28 per game in December, January, and February. When the Jazz even traded four rotation players at the deadline, leaving Markkanen without experienced NBA help, he’s still maintained and even raised his scoring averages of 29 points per game, along with still-efficient scoring percentages.

This week, he became the first NBA player in league history to have at least 200 threes and 100 dunks in a season.

Jazz CEO Danny Ainge reportedly has given him confidence that he’d be with the Jazz for the long term — that he and his young family could buy a house in Utah.

The remarkable year has been, undoubtedly, the culmination of Markkanen’s promise. He was named an All-Star for the first time, and when Anthony Davis dropped from consideration due to injury, Markkanen was elevated to a starter in the contest. In a full-circle moment, on the Sunday morning hours before the All-Star Game, he met with the teenage participants in this year’s BWB Global camp, telling them about how just eight short years ago, he stood in their shoes, unsure of all that would follow.

Markkanen’s proud of his accomplishments — and believes it would be meaningful to be named the NBA’s Most Improved Player. But he doesn’t believe he’s done improving, and still desperately wants to accomplish more in his NBA career. He’s still, for example, missing his first NBA playoffs appearance.

That fits with Markkanen’s modus operandi. When he was a child, his father Pekka said, “Lauri said that the goal is not to play in the NBA, but to be the best player in the NBA.

“At the time, I thought it was quite utopian, but I didn’t dare to laugh. I thought there was a goal. Now the goal is starting to be a little more realistic, and no one laughs at that goal anymore.”

Maybe that’s why Markkanen, upon being officially named an All-Star this year, texted his father “Now to sleep” — followed by three laughing emojis.

After all, no matter how much you sleep in winter, cucumbers grow in the spring.

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