In Utah, Lauri Markkanen’s best career start is a defining factor for jazz ‘ Utah

On NBA draft night in 2017, when the Chicago Bulls traded Lauri Markkanen from the Minnesota Timberwolves, who picked the baby-faced Arizona forward at number 7, This is the player that most people imagined.

And from “This“We mean the walking disparity he’s had with the Utah Jazz this season. Through “This“We mean teammate Jarred Vanderbilt’s final tweet, sent on a lively Friday night after a 38-point masterpiece against the Phoenix Suns, proclaiming Markkanen an All-Star.

Through “This“We’re talking about the guy who’s won several Jazz games this season with last-minute shots, made possible by getting his spot on the floor, rising through good defensive possession and making a hard basket.

It took five seasons for the NBA to see that “This” Version of Markkanen. In a decision still controversial in Chicago, the Bulls had to give up Markkanen and the Cleveland Cavaliers reluctantly gave him up in trade with Donovan Mitchell this summer. He’s come of age in EuroBasket, a tournament where Markkanen really found himself and the jazz that makes him a top priority in new head coach Will Hardy’s system. And it has taken Markkanen to find a new level of confidence to scale a mountain in a five-year career that has had tougher moments than anticipated.

“I don’t know what the cap for Lauri Markkanen is,” Hardy said. “But I’m sure we haven’t seen it yet.”

Markkanen has never averaged more than the 18.7 points per game he averaged in an encouraging sophomore season with the Bulls. He’s averaging 22.3 points per game this season in Utah. Markkanen has never shot more than 48 percent from the field. He’s shooting 54 percent in 18 games this season. Lauri Markkanen has never had an effective field goal percentage higher than 60. He is this season. He never got to the free-throw line more than four times per game. He’s doing that this season.

He is more skilled and sophisticated than ever. Playing through and around contact, he plays with more power than ever. He’s always been a great shooter above the 3-point line, and he regularly knocks it down. But he’s playing at all three levels simultaneously in one season for almost the first time in his career.

At 25, Markkanen is playing at the All-NBA level, and seemingly out of nowhere. He was good at Cleveland, a role player for the Cavaliers, last season, playing in 61 games and starting averaging nearly 15 points a night. The Cavs came under scrutiny for including him in the roster and giving him a long-term contract. People laughed as the Cavaliers moved him to small forward to create a jumbo frontcourt with himself, Evan Mobley and Jarret Allen. But Markkanen as a role player was great in that environment. He was a cog in Cleveland making the play-in tournament. He was a winning player in a winning situation for the first time in his career.

Even against this background, no one saw it This Come. There were rumors when he was one of the best players in the EuroBasket, leading Finland with a great individual performance. But most thought it was a piece for jazz to develop into in the future.

“I think it was the overall game that came together,” Markkanen said. “Working on my overall game, working on where my points are on the floor. I was just trying to bring everything together and just keep working on the overall package. I think the most important thing is not to be satisfied. I have to know that there are many things that I can still improve. It’s a process.”

This season, jazz is all about finding facts.

Of course, the Jazz now have the look of a playoff team. They are 12-6 on the year. They go into action on Monday night as the best team in the Western Conference against the LA Clippers. They achieve this despite playing most away games and against the backdrop of one of the toughest schedules in the league.

The Jazz are more than a cute story, the little team that could get out of the gates was hot. They’re a good basketball team.

At the start of the season, if you asked just about anyone who would be Utah’s next All-Star, the answer was that the player isn’t currently on the list. When the Jazz traded Mitchell to Cleveland, most considered Collin Sexton to be the central element of the deal.

The brew of an NBA champion goes something like this: you have the best player, who is almost always in the top 10 players in the league. They have a second best player who is usually an all-star talent. They complement that with great coaching, lots of depth, lots of shooting and versatile guys who can defend.

Deviations from this formula are rare. Dirk Nowitzki won a championship without a second star at the All-Star level in 2011. But these Dallas Mavericks had everything else. And we do know that the Detroit Pistons won a title in 2004 without a superstar-level talent. When they arrived on paper with their rebuild this season, Jazz needed a #1 guy, a #2 guy, and the depth and versatility required to pull off a title window.

When Markkanen plays at that level, the Jazz have a No. 2 level player. And that changes a lot during the conversion. It speeds up the timeline. Jazz has yet to acquire the #1 piece it needs to win a title. But Markkanen is a big piece. So much seems obvious. There is some risk. We’ve seen guys with All-NBA-level seasons come out of nowhere only to go back to who they were before. We’re looking at you, Julius Randle.

The difference here, on paper at least, is that Markkanen isn’t playing for a contract like Randle did two years ago when he led the New York Knicks to fourth place in the Eastern Conference. And Markkanen wasn’t empowered in Chicago or Cleveland like the Jazz are doing with him this season.

“We know there’s still a lot to do,” Markkanen said. “As you gain more experience and read defenders better, you see things differently when you know people have scouted you. So you learn and see where the covers are and just try to keep getting better.”

What made Markkanen so successful in Utah?

As already mentioned, he reaches all three levels offensively. He plays above the arc, where he shoots 36.9 percent from 3-point range. He plays outside of the midrange. He plays over the edge. He’s too fast at dribbling for most people his size. When teams turn him on, he brings smaller defenders into play and scores goals. He rebounds at a high level, allowing him to fold in transition. Hardy lets him pick and roll, post, catch and shoot, cutting to the edge from the baseline screens. To make a football analogy, it’s kind of like what the Los Angeles Chargers do with All-Pro safetyman Derwin James. Jazz opponents never know where Markkanen will line up from possession to possession.

“Ball movement on and off the ball helps,” said Markkanen. “That gets me a lot of layups or dunks. My teammates have been very good at passing the ball to me when I’m open and I get good views of the rim.”

But there are also intangible values.

Two weeks ago, Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis outpaced Markkanen in the first half of Utah’s 139-116 win. He consistently posted it and scored in the first half. He snorted at him. He punked him on both ends. Markkanen took it, regrouped at halftime, came out and scored 13 of his 23 points in the third quarter. This came after he only scored his first basket midway through the second quarter.

That kind of tenacity and determination may have eluded Markkanen early in his career. But he has matured both physically and mentally. What Markkanen has become this season is the player he was at EuroBasket, the all-around force who dominated almost everyone, the player who averaged 27 points and eight rebounds throughout the tournament.

Everything translates to the NBA this season. And for Lauri Markkanen, everything comes together. And “This‘ benefits the Utah Jazz.

(Photo by Lauri Markkanen: Sam Forencich / NBAE via Getty Images)