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‘The real deal’: How Lauri Markkanen found his footing among the NBA’s elite

A closer look at the evolution of the Utah Jazz All-Star

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Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen drives during game against Atlanta at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, Feb. 3, 2023.

Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen drives during game against Atlanta at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. The sixth-year pro will be a starter at the 2023 All-Star Game in Salt Lake City Sunday night.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Lauri Markkanen was in middle school, juggling his studies as well as both soccer and basketball. His parents had their hands full with three boys who were all involved in multiple sports, so Markkanen would often ride his bike to practices.

But one day at soccer practice, he caught a long ball with his hands — famously a soccer no-no — and thought it was probably best to start investing his time in the sport that came most naturally.

“We all know what everyone thought this team was going to be before the season started. But Lauri is the real deal. Anyone that has watched him this season knows that he’s an All-Star.” — former Jazz teammate Mike Conley on Lauri Markkanen

“I caught it with my hands and was like, I’m not supposed to do this,” said Markkanen, with a short laugh. “That’s when it started hitting me that maybe it’s time for just basketball.”

Though both of Markkanen’s parents are former basketball players, it’s not an easy decision for a boy from Finland to choose basketball over soccer or winter sports, especially when Markkanen grew up such a fan of his older brother, Eero, who went on to play professional soccer.

Tough as the decision was though, it certainly seems to have been the right one.

On Feb. 19, Markkanen will be introduced during a global NBA event as a 2023 NBA All-Star starter and he’ll do it on his home NBA court at Vivint Arena in Utah.

“It’s so deserved,” Mike Conley told the Deseret News before the trade that sent him to the Minnesota Timberwolves. “We all know what everyone thought this team was going to be before the season started. But Lauri is the real deal. Anyone that has watched him this season knows that he’s an All-Star.”

Before the NBA announced the full All-Star team rosters, the Jazz players and coaching staff had no doubt that Markkanen would be selected. As head coach Will Hardy put it the day before the announcement, “none of us are hoping, we’re expecting Lauri to be an All-Star.”

Unfortunately just days before that, the All-Star starters had been revealed and although Markkanen was close in the total vote count, he just missed the cut on being named a starter.

But, injuries to All-Star starters put the decision into NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hands and he gave one of the coveted starting spots to Markkanen.

“It was a nice surprise,” Markkanen told the Deseret News. “It felt good and I wasn’t expecting it. But like I said with the first All-Star announcement, I’ve got to thank my teammates.”

Not your prototypical All-Star

Thanking teammates is, of course, the polite and respectful thing to do when getting an individual accolade in a team sport. But the NBA All-Star history books are filled with players who are great in isolation, who thrived despite their team, who would have probably prospered on any team, who really were great on their own.

Markkanen though is a bit different from the prototypical NBA All-Star.

It’s important to rewind a bit to really appreciate how Markkanen got to where he is. When Markkanen was drafted there were some who thought he might end up being just a big guy who could shoot. But there were others who thought he had the profile and ability to be more like Dirk Nowitzki.

Markkanen was drafted out of Arizona, seventh overall by Minnesota in 2017, and traded on draft night to the Chicago Bulls. That first year, Markkanen started every game that he played and made the NBA’s All-Rookie first team.

In his second NBA season, he continued to improve, even garnering some light All-Star buzz, but he wasn’t the second coming of Nowitzki that some thought he could be. Instead he kind of settled into being a role player, used mostly as a spot-up shooter.

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Cleveland Cavaliers’ Lauri Markkanen blocks a shot by Atlanta Hawks’ De’Andre Hunter during game Friday, April 15, 2022, in Cleveland. The Jazz acquired the versatile big man as part of the trade that sent Donovan Mitchell to the Cavs.

Nick Cammett, Associated Press

Chicago hosted the All-Star Game in 2020, but Markkanen, whose production had dipped a little in that third season, was not an All-Star.

The next season Markkanen lost his starting spot when the Bulls acquired Daniel Theis and Nikola Vucevic. In the summer of 2021, Markkanen was traded to Cleveland as part of a three-team deal with the Bulls. Though he was starting again, Markannen was often a fourth option behind Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and rookie Evan Mobley.

The Cavaliers hosted the 2022 All-Star Game in Cleveland. Again, the annual All-Star festivities were in Markkanen’s backyard and he was not selected.

But Markkanen wasn’t upset with his situation in Cleveland. Starting alongside Allen and Mobley gave the Cavaliers one of the biggest and most dynamic starting groups in the NBA and Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff started to try to use Markkanen in different ways.

It didn’t take long for Markkanen to feel like he had found a real home in the NBA and the Cavaliers had planned for him to be a part of their future. But when Donovan Mitchell became available, the Cavs put a trade package together that made the Jazz happy, and Markkanen joined the rebuilding Jazz.

Hardy, newly minted as the head coach of the Jazz, saw some of the different ways that Cleveland had begun to use Markkanen, and then he watched what he did with the Finnish national team last summer.

“His previous stops in the NBA, I’m not sure that he was considered the premier player on his team. And then you put him with Finland, and he’s very clearly the best player on the team,” Hardy said. “You get to see him in a different light. And so we’ve tried to build on some of that.”

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Finland’s Lauri Markkanen celebrates after winning during the Eurobasket group D basketball game between Czech Republic and Finland in Prague, Czech Republic, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. His performance in the international competition was an eye-opener for many NBA observers.

Petr David Josek, Associated Press

In Cleveland, Markkanen was pushed defensively and was in a heavy switching scheme that called for him to guard all positions. In Finland, he showed off his extensive offensive skills, which included not only playing as a shooter, but also as a ballhandler, a facilitator, a post-up player, an athletic driver and everything in between.

Jazz centerpiece

Hardy saw that Markkanen had the potential to be a premier player for the Jazz, and wasted no time in his efforts to build up Markkanen’s confidence.

“He said the first day when I arrived here that we needed the same version that I was playing overseas,” Markkanen said. “So that gave me the confidence to go out there and do it.”

But, Hardy didn’t want Markkanen to just take over and start playing in isolation and ignore the rest of the team. Rather, he wanted to create a situation where Markkanen could highlight the best of his game within a pass-heavy system featuring a lot of movement.

Turns out, that’s exactly what Markkanen needed to flourish. In his fifth NBA season Markkanen is averaging career highs in points and assists while shooting better than 50% from the field overall and above 40% from 3-point range, and only a small portion of his game is played in isolation. So, when Markkanen thanks his teammates, he means it and it makes a lot of sense.

Though Markkanen is the premier player on this Jazz roster, he hasn’t taken on the aura, attitude, vibe or playing style that is usually associated with a top option on an NBA team. And although he admits that he’s trying to get more comfortable in that role, his unselfishness and his humility are something that Hardy, as well as Markkanen’s teammates, love about him. If anything, his willingness to defer and to do whatever is best in the moment in order to try and win is just another reason they all believe that he deserves all the praise he is getting.

‘Third time’s the charm’

The 2023 NBA All-Star Game will be hosted by the Jazz in Utah, and this time Markkanen is an NBA All-Star starter.

“Third time’s the charm,” Markkanen said. “It didn’t happen in Chicago or Cleveland, but I’m extremely happy to represent the Jazz here. I’m looking forward to it.”

If you look at Nowitzki’s fifth-year NBA stats and put them next to Markkanen’s fifth-year stats, they’re eerily similar. Although that comparison was made when Markkanen was coming out of college, it’s faded into the background a little bit since 2017, only to reemerge once again.

Bickerstaff mentioned it when asked about Markkanen’s breakout season and so did Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, who played alongside Nowitzki in Dallas for years and won an NBA title with him in 2011.

No one is comparing sixth-year Markkanen to what Nowitzki eventually became — a 14-time All-Star, NBA MVP, NBA champion and NBA Finals MVP, who will almost certainly be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But the NBA world sees the potential for a player of that caliber.

Markkanen will be the first to say that he’s far from perfect and that there are many areas in which he can improve his game. But he’s come a long way from being a middle schooler dreaming of someday playing professional basketball.

Once that dream was realized, Markkanen, as an NBA rookie, said that being an All-Star was his next personal goal. Now that he’s once again achieved what he’s set out to do, he might have to start thinking a little bit bigger.

“I’m going to have to come up with something,” he said when asked what his next goal is. “It’s just the beginning and the work continues. You want to make it again and then you want to win bigger things as a team and individually and just keep climbing up. So we’ll see what that’s gonna look like but we go go day-by-day. I’ll celebrate today and then obviously go into tomorrow kind of thinking of an even bigger goal.”

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Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen lays the ball up during an NBA game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News