Utah Jazz’s Lauri Markkanen gets leave from Finnish military base to accept NBA’s Most Improved Player award

After coming to the team almost as an afterthought in the Donovan Mitchell trade, “The Finnisher” wraps his epic first season in Salt Lake City by earning some hardware.

When the Utah Jazz traded Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers this past September, forward Lauri Markkanen was almost an afterthought for observers assessing the return haul.

There was excitement about the three unprotected first-round picks and two pick swaps. High-scoring guard Collin Sexton being included via sign-and-trade was a big deal. And there was intrigue around just-drafted 3-and-D wing Ochai Agbaji, coming off a huge performance in the NCAA’s Final Four weekend.

As for Markkanen … he was considered a nice if somewhat underachieving player.

And now, nearly nine months later, following his sixth season in the league, he’s something else altogether: the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

On Monday evening, the league announced that the native of Finland had beaten out Oklahoma City Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson to win the award.

Among the 100 ballots cast by international, national, and local NBA reporters, Markkanen finished with 69 first-place votes and 430 total points. He wound up being the only player to appear on all 100 ballots, also earning 27 second-place votes and four third-place votes.

Gilgeous-Alexander had 24 first-place votes and 289 points, while Brunson had four firsts and 91 points. (Mikal Bridges, Tyrese Haliburton, and Trey Murphy III accounted for the remaining first-place votes, getting one apiece.)

He became the first player in Jazz history to win the award. Since its inception in 1986, “Most Improved” honors have gone to the likes of Dale Ellis, Kevin Johnson, Jalen Rose, Tracy McGrady, Zach Randolph, Kevin Love, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam, and last year’s winner, Ja Morant.

Markkanen, who is fulfilling his Finnish military service obligation, got the news at 2 a.m. in Helsinki.

“We jumped in to write a new challenge in my life, so I’ve been kind of busy with that — I haven’t been able to think about if I’m going to win this award or not,” Markkanen said via Zoom. “But it means a lot, obviously, so I definitely wanted to wake up for this and be a part of this with you guys.”

He had not had a chance yet to celebrate with his wife and two children, who were sound asleep at home. After being granted evening leave from the base to be with his family in advance of the award announcement, he was due to report back in a few hours.

Sill, the announcement caps a personally fulfilling year for the former lottery pick.

Perception of his inclusion in the Mitchell trade changed almost overnight, when he put up some massive numbers in leading Finland to the EuroBasket quarterfinals. That productivity carried over to the NBA season, as he made the All-Star Game for the first time in his career, and wound up starting and playing in his home arena — an experience he called “pretty surreal.”

The growth in his all-around versatility was perhaps best exemplified by him becoming the first player in NBA history to total 200 3-pointers and 100 dunks in the same season.

In the end, Markkanen averaged 25.6 points (besting his previous high by almost 7 ppg), 8.6 rebounds per game (second-best of his career), and 1.9 assists (also a career-high) this season. His 49.9 FG%, 39.1 3P%, 87.5 FT%, 58.6 eFG%, and 64.0 TS% were all either the best or second-best marks of his career.

The potential had been there for awhile.

He first became noticed on the international hoops scene with a breakout performance at a Basketball Without Borders camp in New York City in 2015. Then he became a one-and-done star for the University of Arizona, leading the Wildcats to a 32-5 season.

He was drafted No. 7 overall, and initially thought of so highly that the Chicago Bulls traded away franchise star Butler to get him. While there were some great moments in his first two seasons, there also became an obvious disconnect between him and then-Bulls coach Jim Boylen in Years 3 and 4, which contributed to a spate of injuries.

Chicago’s front office soured on him to the point that when his rookie deal was coming to a close, the Bulls did not want to be the team to give hm his next deal, and he reached a sign-and-trade agreement with the Cavaliers. After one promising season in Cleveland, he was dealt to the Jazz.

While he acknowledged some initial disappointment at being traded once more, he also told The Salt Lake Tribune in a sitdown near his home in Helsinki that he was making it a point to look for the silver lining: “I always have a positive mindset,” he said, “that maybe this is home that we’ve found.”

His tenure in Salt Lake City certainly got off to a promising start.

Teammates noted early that he came into training camp confident and assertive, looking like a different player than he had during their previous run-ins in the league. Coach Will Hardy said it became apparent almost instantly that Markkanen warranted the opportunity to become the team’s primary offensive option.

“You always believe in yourself. I don’t think I ever stopped believing,” Markkanen said Monday. “Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it’s really gonna happen, but it’s just keep working, keep really believing in it.”

To the point that him being the best player on the Jazz soon was undeniable to teammates and opponents alike.

All season long, he was clearly much improved.

“Much improved,” it turns out, was insufficient. “Most Improved” proved warranted in the end.