FOX Sports NBA reporter
Lauri Markkanen took off his baseball cap as he sat down for a recent post-game press conference. Then he shook his curly blond hair like he was in a shampoo ad.
“Which one is better?” he asked reporters and put the cap back on his head. “Better this way?”
Markkanen is not used to this new level of fame. He seeks styling advice from writers. He smiles widely when approached for an exclusive interview. And after being asked a question about his personal success, he worries if he’s giving his teammates enough credit.
“I mentioned my teammates, yes?” he asks, having talked about her for much of his response.
The 25-year-old forward is having a breakout season for the Utah Jazz, a team that looks set to be in the next lottery but is instead a half game away from first place in the Western Conference, 12-8. Markkanen is their clear top player, a guy who seemingly pushed the boundaries of roleplaying overnight and morphed into one of this season’s biggest surprises.
Now he may even be in the running for an All-Star, something he’s long dreamed of but until recently always seemed more of a fantasy than a possibility.
“Coming into the league, I didn’t want to be just another guy,” Markkanen told FOX Sports this week. “I wanted to be an All-Star.”
This season, the 6-11 forward has developed into a man who can do anything. It has the speed and agility of a much smaller one. He has a guard’s shooting range. When big boys defend him, he blows past them. When smaller guys pick him up, he uses his size to shoot over them.
He is averaging 22.0 points with 52.9% shooting and 8.5 rebounds per game, a significant increase from the 14.8 points with 44.5% shooting and 5.7 rebounds in a game he had last year season with Cleveland.
Markkanen appears to be unlocked, which he attributes to a combination of having the right coach, playing with teammates who believe in him and starting this season in top form after playing for Finland at EuroBasket this summer.
First-year coach Will Hardy knew he wanted to do something different with Markkanen after seeing him play for his home country.
“They used him as a ball handler, they isolated him, they used him as a screener, they got him off the ball — and the thing I learned from that is don’t put him in a box,” Hardy said. “Be willing to live with a few mistakes here and there. And just live with the fact that he’s a really, really good player and his size and athleticism and skill is a rare combination.”
Hardy has allowed Markkanen to play without rules. He has given him the freedom to rely on his instincts and freed him from the confines of positions and roles.
For Markkanen, that changed everything.
“It was just fun to be with this group of guys, with this team that we have,” said Markkanen. “It was fun every night when we go out there. And I think that’s when you play best when you’re having fun.”
Markkanen’s early years in the league were different.
After being drafted seventh overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 2017 draft, he should develop into the type of player he is now. But he fell short of those expectations in his four seasons there.
Markkanen reportedly grew unhappy with his limited role under former Bulls coach Jim Boylen and felt like he had been stripped of his midfield game. Even after Billy Donovan took over, Markkanen apparently wanted a change and was eventually sent to Cleveland as part of a three-way trade.
Reflecting on that time, Markkanen takes responsibility for things not going as hoped.
“Obviously I wish it had worked out there,” said Markkanen. “…It’s a great city, a great place to play basketball. But unfortunately it didn’t work out. I think there were many reasons.
“I always look at myself in the mirror. I wasn’t the player I am today when I was 20. As a person, I think you grow up and see things differently. You approach the game differently. And I think I’m physically better gameplay, I’ve seen different things, I know better how to read different reports, it just didn’t work out there.
After his time with the Bulls, Markkanen spent a season in Cleveland. The Cavaliers then dealt Markkanen, Collin Sexton and a slew of draft picks to the Jazz in exchange for three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell in September.
The Jazz was expected to be in full rebuild mode this season without the services of Mitchell and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert (whom they traded in July). Looking at the squad, there isn’t much to announce this season.
The narration: Markkanen was just a decent role player. Mike Conley Jr. was past his prime. Jordan Clarkson was apparently so under the radar that a The Utah news reporter thought he was a fan last season, asked the former sixth man of the year in a TV interview, “Have you been to any jazz games?” And then there was 34-year-old Hardy, who is so young he recently admitted that one of his biggest challenges is making sure players don’t mistake him for a friend.
But somehow everything has worked so far.
Conley averages a career high in assists (7.9). Clarkson averages a career-high in points (19.3). Hardy was recently hailed by Clippers coach Tyronn Lue as “bringing new things to the NBA that we’ve never seen before.” And Markkanen is playing the best basketball of his life.
Markkanen said the players saw this coming on the first day of the training camp. Sitting in the dressing room, they looked at each other and came to the same conclusion: “We have great players and I think we can surprise a lot of people,” said Markkanen.
Markkanen has led this charge.
He recently shone with a 37-point performance against the Phoenix Suns, going 15-to-18 from the field. And against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, he had 25 points and 10 rebounds while helping keep Kawhi Leonard to eight points in 4-for-11 shooting.
“He’s getting a lot better and gets a lot of opportunities there,” Leonard said of Markkanen. “But I mean it’s up to him what he wants to be.”
Markkanen knows he still has a long way to go.
When asked where he can improve, he’s quick to cite a number of areas including his perimeter play, decision making, ball handling, shooting and defense.
That being said, he also readily acknowledges how much his game has grown. He believes the biggest difference for him this season has been his fitness. “I’m in the best shape of my life,” he said, crediting his stint at EuroBasket with taking his game to a new level.
“You’re with the team and you’re eating right, and you’re doing it non-stop,” he said. “They go several days in a row. Like EuroBasket, we played five games in seven days and then you move on and play again. It helps your timing.”
From the start, Markkanen’s Jazz teammates immediately noticed his potential. You saw how good he looked. They wanted to give him the ball. They believed in him.
And now he’s blossoming, showing the world that a relatively unknown big man playing for a written-off team deserves everyone’s attention.
“I have no doubt that he should be in the conversation to become an All-Star,” Hardy said. “I think the way he played for our group at both ends of the pitch speaks for itself. I know we haven’t appeared on national television this year but I think people are starting to pay attention to him and how he’s playing and rightly so.”
For Markkanen, his newfound success is a dream come true. Now it finally worked for him. And he hopes this is just the beginning of what’s to come.
“I’m doing everything in my power to get my best performance on the floor,” he said. “And we’ll see where that takes me.”
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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