How Lauri Markkanen and the Utah Jazz bested Victor Wembanyama’s Spurs in battle of versatile 7-footers

The Jazz got their first test against the No. 1 overall pick and came out with a 130-118 victory.

(Darren Abate | AP) San Antonio Spurs' Victor Wembanyama (1) shoots against Utah Jazz's Lauri Markkanen during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023, in San Antonio. Utah won 130-118.

Victor Wembanyama is the NBA’s rookie leader in points and rebounds. He leads the entire NBA — not just rookies, but everyone — in blocks.

But Tuesday night’s Jazz-Spurs matchup, one that ended with a 130-118 Utah win, showed exactly how Wembanyama can be stifled right now. It showed why the Spurs, despite Wembanyama’s promise, sit at the bottom of the Western Conference with a 4-24 record. And it showed why the Jazz have been winning basketball games lately, with six of their last eight contests ending up in the win column.

The answer, for now, is simple: The Jazz’s star, Lauri Markkanen, is still significantly better than Wembanyama.

Markkanen will understand Wembanyama’s plight as a young 7-footer. When he was drafted, he too had trouble making an impact on the game consistently. He was also spindly, though perhaps not as slight as Wembanyama. Through time and effort, Markkanen improved his body and his game until he had answers for those challenges.

Let’s look at what the Jazz and Markkanen did against Wembanyama, especially in the fourth quarter, to run away with this one.

Jazz offense

The first key to success? Not attacking Wembanyama in the paint. Wembanyama’s length can swallow up nearly any individual player that goes at him. He had five blocks Tuesday, and they came when the Jazz’s guards chose to attack him inside.

The Jazz have an answer for that, though: playing 5-out lineups. The Jazz’s starting lineup featured Markkanen, Kelly Olynyk, and John Collins, three big men who can shoot. Still, the Spurs sunk into the paint and dared Collins to shoot, and he went 1-4 from deep.

More effective were lineups with Markkanen playing center. In just under 10 minutes, the Jazz’s lineups with Markkanen at center and no other big men — no Collins, Olynyk, or Walker Kessler — outscored the Spurs 25-13.

You can see how that look takes Wembanyama out of the play. Here, the Jazz run pick-and-pop with Keyonte George and Markkanen. Wembanyama wants so badly to protect the rim, as any center would, but Markkanen peeling out for the wid- open three is the key threat. Splash.

Wembanyama’s smart, though. So a minute later, when the Jazz run a pick-and-pop again, he’s much faster out to the perimeter to guard Markkanen. But the Finnish captain isn’t fazed. A ball fake, two dribbles, and quick contact clears out room for an open shot from the baseline.

That contact part was key. I think people imagine skinny NBA players being punished down low on the post, but this is more often how it happens in the modern NBA — who wins when there’s hip-to-hip or hip-to-forearm contact on the move? Markkanen knows exactly what he’s doing to get his open shot here. In fact, he doesn’t even really have to fade away, and Wembanyama knows he’s bested.

Jazz defense

(Darren Abate | AP) San Antonio Spurs' Victor Wembanyama (1) dunks as Utah Jazz's Kelly Olynyk watches during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023, in San Antonio.

The biggest key for the Jazz, though, was stopping Wembanyama from scoring the ball. The rookie scored 15 points, but that’s below his 18-per-night average. And importantly, it took him 15 shots to get there. Wembanyama also added four turnovers.

And the biggest key was Markkanen.

Here’s a quick highlight reel of Markkanen’s defense against Wembanyama.

You can see how Markkanen’s length looks like it’s really bothering his shot release — and then the length results in a strip down low, too. It’s funny, because Wembanyama has the highest shot release in the game, while Markkanen’s release is actually pretty low among 7-footers.

But perhaps Markkanen can get up higher while defending others’ shots than he gets up on his own shot. It certainly looked that way on Tuesday night.

The other issue for Wembanyama is his response to physicality and ball pressure. Check this play out, for example.

He finally sees he has Markkanen guarding someone else in the corner, so he attacks in transition. In the end, it’s 6-5 Ochai Agbaji coming to defend him.

Two things curse Wemby here: Jordan Clarkson’s little stab at stealing the ball causes him to pick up his dribble, and Agbaji’s little forearm is enough to gently shade him away from the basket. The result is a turnover.

The flashes are still ridiculous for Wembanyama, who made multiple unique plays on Tuesday. But even for the most heralded prospect in recent years, wins are still tough to come by. The Jazz — and especially Markkanen — looked significantly superior.