Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen spent the summer working on his skills like most NBA players do.
But Markkanen’s focus was a little different.
The Finnish All-Star learned to pitch a tent, make a fire and shoot a gun. He learned how to work as a team not on the basketball court, but on the literal battlefield, as he completed his mandatory military service for his country.
“I’m happy to be focusing on basketball again,” Markkanen said this week. “But I think it’s a good experience for me to have as a leader and moving forward.”
As a citizen, Markkanen was required to serve before the age of 30. He said the experience challenged him “physically and mentally,” but he looked at this time with the military positively.
Markkanen arrived in Finland not long after last season ended, where he got a fresh buzzcut and embarked on his training.
Markkanen’s least favorite part?
“Believe it or not, even though I’m from Finland, I’m not that happy in the cold,” he said. “We had a pretty cold summer. Waking up and crawling out of my tent to see snow in the first week of May was a pretty freezing moment.”
When asked how good of a marksman he had become, Markkanen replied: “Solid.” He added in jest that he hopes it’s better than his near-40% clip from the 3-point line last season.
Markkanen said the mental challenges of serving In the military came in pushing through moments that “made you uncomfortable at times.” He learned that while he knew what it was like to overcome adversity as a basketball player, it was entirely different to do in unfamiliar situations.
“I think that was the challenging part — being expected to lead and survive with the stuff that I’ve never done before,” Markkanen said.
Markkanen had to be granted leave from his military base to accept the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The Finnish basketball star was also allowed to compete for his country during the FIBA World Cup.
Now Markkanen hopes to turn an unconventional summer into an exceptional season in Utah.
Last week, Jazz coach Will Hardy described Markkanen as an introvert who has become ready to take on more of a leadership role.
“Something that he and I have spoken a lot about this summer is understanding that people are looking at you even when you don’t want them to be looking at you,” Hardy said. “So how you react to different situations in a game, after a game, at practice, in a film session, it matters to the team. He’s getting used to sort of carrying that weight.”
Perhaps military service was the unlikely push Markkanen needed for him to become the leader the Jazz need.