NEW ORLEANS — Mike Conley is not used to having a 7-footer lead a fast break. So when Lauri Markkanen stole the ball from the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday night and went straight up the court, leading the break, Conley had to step on the gas a bit.
“I saw him booking it and I had to speed up,” Conley said. “He had to slow down just to be able to pass to me.”
Markkanen calmly dished the ball to Conley for the bucket, giving the Jazz a 12-point lead in the third quarter. The Jazz would eventually need Markkanen’s heroics in the fourth, when Jordan Clarkson nearly turned the ball over on a miscommunicated pass. Markkanen raced up the court, saved the ball and passed it back to Clarkson who then hit a game-tying shot with 33 seconds left. That shot sent the game into overtime, where the Jazz would win, 122-121, to improve to 3-0 on the season.
While the two assists were highlight plays, Markkanen was brilliant in every aspect against the Pelicans. He finished with a game-high 31 points, including a perfect 11-of-11 from the free-throw line, to go with a game-high 12 rebounds.
While Markkanen went seventh overall in the 2017 draft and had really impressive performances in his first two seasons in the league with the Chicago Bulls, earning him a spot on the Rising Stars teams during All-Star weekend and leading to some potential All-Star buzz, he’s had some injuries and his usage has decreased in recent years.
This summer, Markkanen absolutely feasted during the EuroBasket tournament, leading the Finnish national team to the quarterfinals, and it opened a lot of eyes to the kind of player that he could be if he was allowed the opportunity to expand his game. He showed himself as a ball-handler, as a creator, and as a scorer at all three levels.
“I kind of showed myself I can do multiple things on the floor on both ends and it kind of built my confidence back up,” Markkanen said. “So, I feel ready to go for the year.”
After the Jazz acquired Markkanen in the trade that sent Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers, new head coach Will Hardy told Markkanen that he wanted to give him the room to show the NBA what he was capable of.
“Just building on the summer. It was a great representation of Lauri’s game as a whole and he does have more to offer than maybe he’s shown in the past,” Hardy said. “We need his versatility, and we’re going to ask him every night to do a variety of different things on both ends of the floor. I mean, he’s done everything from guard wings to guard (Nikola) Jokic. He’s handled in the pick-and-roll, he’s set some screens and he’s spaced the floor. As a coach, it’s a luxury to have a player that has that level of versatility.”
Even with his early success in Chicago and maintaining being a valued player, and even with his wild performances internationally, there were many players who weren’t expecting the kind of player that Markkanen is. His own teammates included.
“Lauri Mak. That dude is so cold. I had no idea,” Malik Beasley said. “Every single game he does something else and I tell him, ‘You’re cold as (expletive).’ He’s shooting, getting to the rim, dunking the ball, moving around, he does everything for the team.”
The Jazz saw the potential for a star in Markkanen and it’s why they wanted him in the Cleveland trade. Though the Jazz traded away their most lethal star power during the offseason, there was certainly some hope that despite being in a rebuilding season, that the team would be able to have some sort of representation at the All-Star game that will be in Utah this coming February.
It is incredibly too early to make any sort of predictions or know what kind of competition there will be when ballots are being filled out, but Markkanen has started the 2022-23 season off making the best case of his career thus far. Through the first three games, he’s averaging 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists, all career-highs.
“It’s a good fit here,” Markkanen said. “I’ve tried to stay active and aggressive on both ends every time I come out there. It’s a good start, but we’ve still got to keep learning and keep getting better.”