Lauri Markkanen spent this offseason working to expand his ballhandling — and the results are starting to show

The 7-foot All-Star may be nicknamed The Finnisher, but he wants to be a creator on the court too.

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, right, looks to pass the ball as Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) defends in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Oct. 30, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Lauri Markkanen shocked the NBA last season.

After a mostly anonymous, stop-start career with the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, Markkanen came to Utah last season and became an All-NBA caliber forward. He succeeded inside and out, being the only player in the NBA with 200 threes and 100 dunks.

So Markkanen’s tasks coming into year two with the Jazz were simple:

1) Consolidate and maintain the performance level he showed last season.

2) Get even better.

It’s still early in the season, but even as the Jazz have gone 1-3 to begin the year, Markkanen’s performances have shown the dividends of his offseason work. And in particular, he’s becoming more of a threat as a player who can play make for himself — one who doesn’t necessarily need his teammates to feed him. In other words, The Finnisher is becoming more of a Creator, too.

“We do want Lauri to be more of an overall threat,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “It’s something that he’s worked a lot on.”

The first step of that work? Ballhandling excellence. It’s tough for a 7-footer like Markkanen to be an elite ballhandler — the distance between his hands and the ground is just a lot larger than it is for the shorter players of the NBA, making the ball an easier target to swipe away. That’s especially true when he’s defended by the guards and wings of the league.

So this summer, Markkanen went to his Finnish national team coaches and asked for a change. In practice groupings, rather than working out with the bigs on the Finnish team, he wanted to work out with the guards and wings. That way, he could work on the ballhandling aspect of his game even as the overall team prepared for the World Cup. (He also wanted to work on defending quicker players, so the switch served two purposes.)

And outside the national team, Markkanen focused on every ballhandling drill he and his handpicked team of coaches could think of: stationary and on the move exercises, with and without a defender. He feels that he’s stronger at it than ever before.

Where does it show?

Right now and last season, Markkanen’s really, really good at attacking closeouts. Against the Nuggets on Monday, against a very good defender in Aaron Gordon, he was able to beat him in those situations multiple times — once for a layup, twice for assists to others.

But we’re also seeing starting to see more advanced ballhandling in transition. Against the Nuggets, he successfully kept the ball as Jamal Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope swiped at it for 40 feet.

Against the Kings, he also showed off a beautiful Euro step in transition.

The goal is to make Markkanen feel more comfortable in other ballhandling situations. First, in isolation.

“Inside the 3-point line, I think because of his size and physicality, he’s shown more comfort playing one-on-one there. But it’s still a work in progress playing one-on-one facing up outside the three point line,” Hardy said.

Down the road, it would also be great if Markkanen could also run pick and roll as a ballhandler. He’s a very, very effective screener — both as a popper and as a roller. But if he were able to actually dribble and create out of the pick and roll, the threat of his height and shooting could get some great looks for himself and others. It’s easy to imagine him and Kessler giving offenses fits.

He’s pretty far away from doing that much, though: he ran less than one of those per game last season, and has only run one so far in the four games this season, according to Synergy Sports.

“I’ve obviously got a ways to go,” Markkanen said. “I’m working on it every day.”

The overall goal, especially in those last two categories, is to make Markkanen someone the Jazz can go to even more often than they already do. Because of his limitations, the Jazz haven’t necessarily been able to make sure their late-game possessions go to their best player — Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson primarily saw the ball in those situations last year. Markkanen’s usage percentage ranked 39th in the NBA last year, but if the Jazz were able to force feed him more possessions, it’d probably result in more efficient offense.

While he wants to improve, Markkanen doesn’t necessarily want the game to revolve around him late. He pointed out the Jazz’s only true close game so far, in which he was being guarded by Kawhi Leonard, and that it was probably better for the team if they attacked anyone else late. Indeed, it was Clarkson who shot and made that game’s winning three.

Monday night’s game against the defending champions never got to true clutch moments late to test his game in that way. But once again, Markkanen led the team in scoring with 27 points, and added 14 rebounds to boot. Five assists were a bright spot, too. In the game, Hardy was impressed with the 7-footer’s versatility.

“He’s really doing a good job in terms of his growth, reading different defenses. Denver guarded him differently than the first couple of teams have guarded him,” Hardy said. “He made a lot of good decisions today.”

Markkanen’s already the Jazz’s best player, there’s no doubt about it. But as the Jazz look to the future, both he and the team hope that even more growth is ahead.