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The Emergence of Lauri Markkanen

Darren Yamashita / USA TODAY Sports

Professional athletes throughout the history of sports have changed teams on countless occasions through releases, trades and free agency. For the average person it is difficult to quantify the impact a trade or a release can have on an athlete’s life and career. An exit from the current team can be a blow to their confidence, can affect how they play the game psychologically or it can be a new start for them and a new opportunity to prove what they’re capable of. 

Lauri Markkanen would be a tremendous example of how a change of scenery can dramatically impact the public’s perception of an athlete and their abilities. Markkanen was traded to the Utah Jazz as a part of the package sent from the Cleveland Cavaliers to acquire the highly coveted All-Star Donovan Mitchell last offseason and Markkanen was generally regarded as an afterthought as a part of the deal. This is not the Finnish product’s first relocation within the NBA, either. Markkanen was part of a sign-and-trade deal from the Chicago Bulls which sent the forward to the Cavaliers the previous offseason as well as the NBA Draft night transaction that sent him from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Bulls as a piece in the Jimmy Butler trade. 


The Chicago Years

Markkanen’s career up to this point has been the product of highs and lows, being named to the All-Rookie Team in the 2017-2018 season and putting together a promising sophomore season to being relegated to a spot-up shooter and falling out of the rotation for the Bulls in Jim Boylan’s unsuccessful tenure as head coach in Chicago. 

Markkanen showed the promise and potential the Bulls were looking for after initiating a rebuild following the Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler era, especially in his second year in the league. The former Wildcat was averaging 18.7 ppg and grabbing 9.0 rpg on respectable shooting splits .430/.361/.872. This was likely a result of head coach Fred Hoiberg’s free flowing offense in his first two years but with his untimely termination and Boylen’s arrival, the offense began to become more centered around Zach LaVine and stagnated for most of the other players receiving minutes. 

Markkanen’s minutes continued to decline with his role diminishing to basically standing in the corner on offense and hoping to receive a catch-and-shoot opportunity. That didn’t stop him from becoming more efficient on the offensive end but all of the cumulative statistics and averages declined in his last year for the Bulls. Markkanen finished the 2020-21 season averaging 13.6 ppg with 5.3 rpg on career best shooting splits up to that point, hitting 48% of his field goals and 40% from behind the arc but that came on only 25.8 minutes per game. 


Pitstop In Cleveland

Markkanen was sent to the Cavaliers as part of a three-team sign-and-trade deal in the following offseason which dealt Larry Nance Jr. to the Portland Trail Blazers and Derrick Jones Jr. to the Bulls. This was of course a welcome opportunity for Markkanen considering the Cavaliers needed shooting and he would receive more minutes. 

This was a questionable decision by the Cavs though with Markkanen’s natural position being at power forward and the team already possessing Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen playing at the four and five. Markkanen was forced to play as an oversized small forward and this at times caused a log jam in the post with three nearly seven-footers vying for opportunities down low in the paint. Markkanen made the most of his opportunities with more minutes but ultimately the odd lineup configuration wasn’t a recipe for success. The Cavaliers were able to make it to the playoffs but fell in the Play-In Tournament. 


Salt Life 

This brings us close to the present day. The Cavaliers, seeing a surprising opportunity to improve with their young core, jumped at the chance to acquire Donovan Mitchell as talk around the league reached a fevered pitch with the Jazz finishing the season in another early playoff exit and looking to catalyze a rebuild. Markkanen along with rookie Ochai Agbaji, Collin Sexton and three unprotected first round picks were sent to Utah to acquire the three-time All-Star guard in one of the most notable moves of the offseason. 

This led many to believe that the Jazz were fully embracing the rebuild and likely tanking in the effort to possibly gain the services of highly coveted draft prospect Victor Wembanyama in next year’s NBA Draft but Markkanen had other plans. Markkanen represented Finland in the FIBA Eurobasket Tournament prior to this season and tore up the competition with 50/40/90 shooting splits on 27.9 ppg and 8.1 rpg which was a mere precursor of what was to come in the NBA. 

Markkanen helped the Jazz get off to a blazing start, opening the season 12-6 and holding onto the number one seed in the Western Conference for a brief time. Markkanen rattled off a slew of thirty plus point performances throughout the first half of this season including a 49 point explosion against the Houston Rockets earlier this month. The Jazz may have come down to Earth as a whole, currently sitting in eighth place at 25-25 in the Western Conference but Markkanen has been the engine driving their offense. 

The Arizona alum has been allowed the freedom and creativity to work within head coach Will Hardy’s system which involves heavy ball movement and passing to free up opportunities for everyone on the offense. There is no heliocentric player like Luka Doncic or Nikola Jokic running the offense but Markkanen has been aggressive on the offensive end, seizing upon the opportunities he has been given. 

This season Markkanen is averaging 24.8 ppg, snagging 8.8 rpg on career best shooting splits .521/.429/.872 on the highest volume of his career at 34.2 minutes per game. Markkanen is playing excellent basketball on high volume with incredible efficiency and currently is top ten in the league in real plus/minus at 5.59 and true shooting percentage at 66.8% from the field. 


The Road Ahead 

With the NBA All-Star starters being announced yesterday, Markkanen is a shoe-in for the Western Conference as a reserve and most likely the current front-runner for the Most Improved Player of the Year award. The road for Markkanen will likely be dictated by how the Jazz want to proceed with their rebuild. 

If the Jazz view him as a pivotal piece to build around then Markkanen will be a member of the Jazz for a while but if the Jazz start to dip dramatically in the standings then the possibility is there that a contender may want to add him for future draft picks which you’d have to imagine Danny Ainge wouldn’t be disappointed about. 

The Jazz and Markkanen seem to have a good thing going though so as an observer you’d hope the arrangement continues so that the Finnish star can be given the room to blossom into the superstar that he has shown flashes of becoming. 

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