Just 13 hours before Finland played its first game in Eurobasket 2022 in September, Cleveland traded Finnish big man Lauri Markkanen to Utah. The deal focused on Donovan Mitchell going from the Utah Jazz to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But as Eurobasket unfolded, Jazz officials, including new coach Will Hardy, began to see what was not previously apparent: Markkanen can be the best player on a team.
Against some of Europe’s top players, which included some high-level NBAers (Nikola Jokic, Bojan Bogdanovic, Dario Saric), Markkanen excelled.
He averaged 27.9 points and 8.1 rebounds in seven games, scoring 43 against Croatia and 28 against Spain. He made 3-pointers, scored inside and got to the foul line.
Hardy asked himself: Why can’t he do that for us?
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“Really, him playing for Finland just opened my eyes to the concept of let’s not put him in a box,’ Hardy told USA TODAY Sports. ‘Do we know exactly everything that he can and can’t do? No. But let’s not make any preconceived opinions about Lauri and his game because when he played for Finland, he was doing everything. He’s pushing the ball in transition, he’s posting, he’s shooting off the move, he’s playing a little bit of isolation, he’s setting ball screens, which gave us the freedom as a staff, and for me, to say, ‘OK, let’s try some things with him.’”
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The results have been phenomenal for the Markkanen and the Jazz. Markkanen, 25, averages career highs in points (24.9), field-percentage (51.3%), 3-point percentage (41.3%), free throw percentage (87.7%) and minutes (34.3) along with 8.6 rebounds and a career-best 22 double-doubles.
He was named to the All-Star team for the first time this month and will participate in the 3-point contest on Saturday, a day before the All-Star Game.
“It meant a lot,” Markkanen told USA TODAY Sports. “I’ve said it publicly. That’s been a goal of mine on the individual level. Obviously, the main goal is to win and win at the highest level, but as an individual player, that was always my goal – not be just another player. I wanted to make a difference and be on an all-star stage. But obviously, not satisfied with just the one appearance.”
Markkanen is the first All-Star from Finland and one of a league-record four European All-Star starters with Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dallas’ Luka Doncic. Markkanen attended All-Star Weekend in 2015 as a 17-year-old prospect at the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders global camp.
Selected No. 7 by Minnesota but traded to Chicago along with Zach LaVine on draft night in 2017, Markkanen spent his first four seasons with the Bulls, showing the capability to be a solid player – 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds his second season – but not a star. Chicago’s acquisitions of LaVine, Nik Vucevic, Lonzo Ball and eventually DeMar DeRozan pushed Markkanen to the fringe and ended with a trade to Cleveland before the 2021-22 season.
In Cleveland, Markkanen formed a strong frontcourt filled with near 7-footers in Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Markkanen played well but was not a featured scorer.
After last season, he had a long summer of preparing for this season and playing for Finland in Eurobasket. By the time Eurobasket concluded in September, the 7-foot Markkanen knew the tournament was an inflection point in his career.
“I was the No. 1 option, so I kind of got used to being guarded different ways and players trying to be physical with me and with different game plans, and I just got used to that,” Markkanen said. “And then this year’s EuroBasket was really competitive. A lot of NBA guys came back and every team had some high-level players. So I think just seeing that I was able to do that over there, it was kind of easy to come over here and bring that same mentality and skillset.”
From the start of the season, Markkanen did just that: 17 points in the season-opener, 31 points two games later, 31 points in a victory against Memphis on Oct. 31 and 38 points on 15-for-18 shooting in victory against Phoenix. He scored a career-high 49 points against Houston on Jan. 5.
‘Training camp started, and we put a couple things in for him and watched him play within our offense,” Hardy said. “We wanted to really have a structure that involved everybody and had a lot of guys doing a lot of different things. Lauri just kept seeming to find success, doing a little bit of everything. It’s kind of just grown piece by piece. He’s doing more now than he was the first day, and we’ve learned more about him, and he’s shown us all the things that he’s really good at.”
Versatility has emerged a key component of Markkanen’s offensive repertoire. He can shoot 3s (the Jazz love finding him open space on the weak side), he can hit mid-range shots, uses both hands effectively in the low post and with his size, he can get his shot off against most defenders. He has added a step-back 3 to his game, a move he hasn’t spent a lot of time working on.
“First time I did it this year, I didn’t really even think about it,” he said. ‘Obviously I did it a couple times this summer in EuroBasket, but it wasn’t like my workouts were based on step-back 3s. But, it’s something that I can do and I’m confident in shooting. The biggest thing, I know that I’m capable of making the shot.”
Hardy and Markkanen have developed a mutually beneficial relationship. The better Markkanen is, the better the Jazz are, and the Jazz have a promising future with Markkanen, Collin Sexton and a dozen future first-round picks. Markkanen has two years and $35.3 million left on his four-year contract, setting him up for free agency in 2025.
“I feel like 50% of my job is to push him and help him improve, to help try to find avenues for him to improve.,” Hardy said. “And the other 50% is to stay out of his way. And he knows that. He works as hard as any guy we have. He’s very diligent about not only his on-court work from a basketball standpoint, but he’s very diligent about taking care of his body.
“That’s another thing that isn’t talked about enough. You want to be one of the best players, you got to be durable. And he’s done a great job from a professionalism standpoint of doing what he needs to do on the court and in the weight room and training room every single day.”
Markkanen wants to work on his ball-handling and isolation one-on-one game to become a bigger threat. In a late-game play against Portland on Dec. 3 with the Jazz leading 111-110 and 37 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Markkanen dribbled across half court and turned the ball over, trying to pass to Kelly Olynyk. Hardy’s message to Markkanen: We want our best scorer to have the ball in his hands in that moment.
“I know I’ve got a ways to go to be the best player I can be,” he said. “But I’m excited about the journey, and I’m in the right spot to work on my game. It’s a great organization to be a part of, and there’s guys that help me with it, so I couldn’t be more happy.”