Lauri Markkanen Is A Dude Now
2:16 PM EST on February 24, 2023
If you'd told me at the outset of the season that Lauri Markkanen would improve, I'd have said, sure, why not, he'll get lots of reps on the tanking Jazz. If you said he was bound for an All-NBA team, I'd have said "turpa kiinni." But here we are. “He had 43?” Thunder forward Kenrich Williams marveled after a 120-119 OT loss to the Jazz on Thursday night. “Wow … I’ve played him previously on different teams, and he looks like a completely different player this year.” Well said, sir. The 25-year-old Finn has vaulted from Guy to Dude as abruptly as any player in recent memory. He made that point to Kenrich Williams clearly enough:
Danny Ainge's rebuilding 30-31 Jazz remain a peculiar tar pit—catch them trotting out Talen Horton-Tucker and Kris Dunn for heavy point guard minutes last night—but at the core of it all, somehow, is the most efficient scoring wing in the NBA. Watch a No. 1 option Markkanen fly by perimeter defenders for crunchy dunks and it's hard to make sense of his Bulls tenure as a floor-spacing big struggling to bulk up. In Cleveland, he had to play smaller behind their twin towers, so he modified his workouts to that end, shedding weight and getting springier. By the time he was shipped out for Donovan Mitchell, Markkanen was more versatile, but still hadn't hinted at this metamorphosis. Changing team context often changes a career arc; it rarely reinvents one this violently. Utah's baby coach Will Hardy said he drew on Markkanen's one-man dominance on the Finnish national team when figuring out how to best deploy him in a motion-heavy offense.
Under the heaviest workload of his professional career, Markannen, rather unrelatably, got faster, stronger, and sharper. Now his 66 percent true shooting looms above the league average 58. He's also in the 98th percentile in points per shot attempt, per Cleaning The Glass. There aren't many answers or precedents for a seven-footer with 51/41/88 shooting splits. (It's just him, MVP Dirk, and, hilariously, 2015 Meyers Leonard.)
New-look Markkanen took over as the Jazz chiseled away the Thunder lead on Thursday. The three-ball wasn't falling like usual, so he assailed the rim: 18 points in the fourth quarter, sinking eight of his last 11 shots, mostly in the paint and multiply contested. On the last Jazz possession in overtime, Markkanen drew a foul on a step-back three and sunk all his free throws to secure the win. Utah hadn't led the game since the second quarter. Markkanen paired his 43 points with 10 rebounds. This was his second 40-piece to date, just behind the career-high 49 he dropped on the Rockets last month.
The Jazz, who sold at the trade deadline, are larded with picks. Well ahead of schedule, Markkanen has proved himself a thoroughly futuristic keystone for whatever they hope to build. He scores everywhere, with shooting, slashing, and a revamped post game. On defense he's agile enough to share the floor with Walker Kessler (rapidly closing the gap on the Rudy Gobert he was swapped for) and Kelly Olynyk (Kelly Olynyk) in ultra-large lineups. Right now Utah is loitering around the play-in. It'll be a minor shame if we don't get to see whether this damn Lauri Markkanen translates to the postseason.
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