SALT LAKE CITY — It might have seemed like a slam dunk that Mikael Jantunen would end up playing for the University of Utah basketball team. One of Finland’s top young players, he was coached for three years in high school by former Ute standout Hanno Mottola, who was a part of the 1998 team that played for the national championship.
But Jantunen insists that Mottola, while giving Utah a very positive review, left the decision to him, one he’s happy he made.
“After I visited here I loved the people right away and I felt I belonged here,” Jantunen said. “Hanno, he helped me, but the decision was all up to me. I liked the coaching staff and the teammates I met.”
The 6-foot-8, 219-pound Jantunen is one of the group of 11 freshmen on the Utes roster and as the year has progressed he’s played a bigger role for the team, which has three tough road games beginning Sunday at Colorado (4 p.m. MST).
Although he doesn’t start, Jantunen is usually one of the first off the bench for the Utes and his numbers have improved as the season has gone along.
Jantunen is fifth in scoring at 7.1 ppg, third in rebounding at 5.1 rpg and leads the team in field-goal shooting at 68.6% while making 4 of 9 3-point shots. He even got heck from his coach last week for passing up an open 3-pointer in the second half after sinking his other two tries earlier in the game. Larry Krystkowiak said if he had made a pair of 3-pointers, he shouldn’t hesitate putting up another.
Jantunen, who goes by “Mick” or “Mickey” and is even called “Finland” by some, acknowledges he got off to a slow start and said it was partly due to knee problems dating back to high school, but also to getting adjusted to his new environment.
“In the beginning I had trouble finding my rhythm with all the new teammates all playing together for the first time,” he said. “But I’ve found my game a little better in the last few games, yeah for sure.”
Krystkowiak said Jantunen isn’t the type of player who wows you with any one thing he does, but “he’s just really solid in a lot of different categories.”
“Defensively he’s as good of big as we have, he brings an awful lot of energy and has a level of physicality,” he said. “I think he has a super high basketball IQ.”
Ask Jantunen the best part of his game and the first thing he mentions is defense, something he’s had to adapt to since coming to America.
”I have to stop using my hands,” he said. “I don’t know if the refs let you do more in Europe, but the way I play defense in Europe would get me fouled out pretty quickly so I’ve had to kind of clean it up. I’m sure that will help me when I get back to Europe again.”
Henrik Dettmann, the coach for the Finnish national team, was recently in town observing a Utes practice and attending a game. Like Mottota, he didn’t pressure Jantunen where to go to college, but he’s happy he ended up at Utah.
The longtime coach used to visit Mottola when he played at the U. and recalls his experiences with Mottola’s former coach.
“I have stories about coach Rick Majerus and all the dinners,” Dettmann, said with a smile.
Dettmann acknowledges Finland is not known for producing a lot of great basketball players, saying Mottola was the best before Lauri Markkanen (Chicago Bulls) came along.
“Mickey is great to coach, he’s coachable, he listens and he learns,” Dettmann said. “He has sisu.”
Dettman explained that sisu is a Finnish word “we use when we want to express something special about the Finnish mentality.”
He then said to “Google it,” and we discovered that sisu is described as “stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery and resilience.” And the word doesn’t have a literal equivalent in English.
“He doesn’t give up, he’s tough, he plays hard and he does everything for the team,” Dettman said. “He should improve several parts of his game because the coaching here is at such a great level. I can already see from watching him for 10 minutes that he has improvements.”
He agrees with Krystkowiak that Jantunen doesn’t stand out in any one area, but he says that is good.
“People always want people to shine in one thing,” he said. “He’s not the star in the sky, but he’s the sky.”
Dettman also believes Jantunen has a great future.
“We have big expectations for Mickey. We’ll see how far he can go, we definitely think he can play at the highest level, at least in Europe. Let’s see how it’s going to be here.”