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Markkanen: How high can Lauri bird fly?

Lauri Markkanen is showing flashes of his All-Star potential as a three-level offensive threat. But can a team win with the big Finn at the helm?

In case you’ve been living under a rock, let me remind you of the hot story of this early NBA season. The Utah Jazz have defied all expectations by refusing the tank and coming out the gates swinging, topping the West for several weeks with a hot-shooting offensive juggernaut led by none other than Lauri Markkanen.

While the Jazz’s dreams of a one-seed and “running it back!” faded thanks to just three wins in their past nine, Lauri’s play is yet to drop off and it’s not ridiculous to see him making his first All-Star team this season. He’s averaging 22.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists on 53-41-83 shooting splits with a volume not seen since his sophomore season.

Perhaps pigeonholed by NBA fans (and coaches) as a catch-and-shoot stretch four, the Finn is showcasing the three-level scoring and attack off the dribble he’s always hinted at since coming out of Arizona in 2017.

Moreover, the Jazz have proven they can win games when Lauri is the focal point – he’s leading the team in scoring and his usage is only second to Jordan Clarkson, the team’s primary ballhandler.

But is the ceiling for a team led by Markkanen a play-in spot in the West? More importantly, is the ceiling for Markkanen overachieving as a first option or underachieving as a roleplayer on a mid-level team, or is there a role for him on a championship contender that maximises his skillset and wins his team games?

When Lauri was drafted in 2017, the league had suffered another season of dominance by the three-point-infatuated Golden State Warriors, and had an early taste of Kristaps Porzingis, the 7’3” European big man who could splash it from outside.

So while scouting reports at the time recognised his offensive versatility, you can understand why the focus was on Markkanen’s three-point shooting, especially after shooting 42 percent from deep in his freshman year.

This season, Lauri has tried to shed the image of a spot-up shooter, spending less time in pick-and-pop situations or standing in the corner and more time cutting, putting the ball to the floor and attacking the rim.

It also helps that he’s away from the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that predominantly wanted to put the ball in Darius Garland’s hands and watch him run pick-and-rolls.

He’s still taking a lot of threes, a steady 6.4 attempts per game or 39 percent of his total shot attempts, but it’s significantly down from his 51 percent in Cleveland last year. Moreover, his attempts within ten feet are at a career-high 48 percent, where he’s shooting an impressive 64.9 percent.

Lauri’s three-point shooting is a known entity. He’s good at getting open, can shoot over smaller defenders closing out and he’s absolutely lethal from the corner (this year he’s shooting 56 percent on those shots, in the 98th percentile among forwards per Cleaning the Glass). What we’re now seeing is his full threat level attacking the rim.

When Markkanen gets downhill, it’s a mismatch whoever is guarding him. If it’s a big, he’s fast enough to blow by them and strong enough to make the contested finish. If it’s a guard or wing-sized player, he simply bullies his way past them or uses his size to finish over them.

Here are a couple examples of a play the Jazz love to run, where Lauri receives an off-ball screen on the wing and curls, giving him some much-needed downhill momentum. Credit to Coach Daniel (the King is back baby!) for his analysis of this in his recent video on the Utah Jazz’s offence.

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Jordan Clarkson sets a down screen for Lauri, and by the time Anthony Davis (quite a good defender, mind you) has fought through it Markkanen has already blitzed past him to finish at the rim, with only the much smaller Troy Brown Jr. there to help.

Here the Mavs switch, although Dorian Finney-Smith keeps behind Markkanen for a moment to try and disrupt his dribble before switching onto Clarkson. Reggie Bullock does a good job reading the play, but Markkanen easily uses his footwork and length to finish over and around the much shorter player with the left hand.

Lauri already has a mismatch here with Buddy Hield defending him, who quickly gets lost on the Kelly Olynyk screen. Jalen Smith drops back into the paint enough to keep Lauri out, and Myles Turner is lurking to mop up any shot at the rim, so instead Markkanen creates a teeny bit more space for himself with an extra dribble and easily hits the short-ranged stepback.

This time Azubuike is setting the screen, so his defender doesn’t have to worry about the three-point shot and can drop back to protect the rim. It doesn’t matter though, not one bit. Caruso does well to duck under the screen and keep up with Markkanen, but the Finnisher just gives him a little love tap and takes him out of the play before finishing with the right while avoiding Drummond’s contest.

Across these four clips, the defence throws four different coverages at this play, and Lauri comes up with the easy finish each time. This Ivan Drago-lookin ass seven-footer is really looking at any defender in the league like: “If he dies, he dies.”

It’s clear Lauri Markkanen is the perfect fit for the modern NBA offence.

He’s a top-tier threat from the perimeter, can attack the closeout, and is skillful enough in the midrange and the post to get a good look if there isn’t an option at the rim.

It also doesn’t look like a flash in the pan – these are all tangible skills he has demonstrated repeatedly, and they look repeatable in a number of environments. He’s obviously benefitting from good coaching and a solid roster, but what player doesn’t?

So what’s stopping Lauri from being the first option on a good team? His limitations are very clear.

He’s not a creator on offence, both in that he’s not making his own shot in iso situations or involving his teammates very much. He’s only making 29 percent of his shots unassisted, which is an improvement from last season’s 18.2 percent but still shows a reliance on creation from Utah’s rogue gallery of guards.

His assist-to-usage ratio is in the 21st percentile per Cleaning the Glass, so although he’s breaking down defences and creating space he’s not capitalising with open looks for his teammates.

His defence has always been an issue, where his athleticism doesn’t translate into good lateral movement on the perimeter or rim-protecting ability. His one percent block percentage is paltry for a seven-footer and although there have been games where he has looked solid in drop coverage (I’m thinking of their October 31 win over Memphis where he posted four blocks without really jumping, including two on Ja Morant) the Jazz are spending more time trying to paper over his defence than let it shine.

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If Lauri Markkanen was to exist in a contending ecosystem, let’s say, he would need a scorer and creator at the level above him, or one of the league’s very best pass-first point guards. He would also need to play next to good rim protection, as he did in Cleveland, or the team would have to sacrifice rim protection entirely, as we’re seeing currently in New Orleans.

And this hypothetical team would have to be willing to let Lauri be a focal point of their offence, giving him looks and running plays that allow his skillset to shine, rather than just sticking him in the corner.

That’s not a situation that just appears overnight.

You could imagine Markkanen on a litany of existing contenders or near-contending teams. The Boston Celtics could bring in Danilo Gallinari on steroids, the Miami Heat could use some more dynamism in their offence and a complimentary frontcourt partner for Bam Adebayo, and any player would look great next to Luka Doncic but particularly a seven-foot three-level guy who’s comfortable taking (and hitting) big shots.

But these teams don’t have either the impetus or the resources to trade for a 25-year-old putting his name in the All-Star hat for the first time in his career. Moreover, the Jazz have indicated that he is not for sale, signalling that they see Lauri as a part of the next great Utah team.

I can certainly imagine a future where Utah rolls out with Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, Jarred Vanderbilt, a blue-chip young prospect and an All-Star level player acquired through trade or free agency, and I can certainly imagine that team being good. But the path there isn’t clear to me.

Take a look at Cleveland, Lauri’s home last season. The Cavs were bad for a long time, picking in the top five of the draft in four consecutive seasons. They were very wily with their trades, inserting themselves into the James Harden trade to acquire an undervalued Jarrett Allen and picking up Lauri himself in the trade that sent Larry Nance Jr. to Portland. Then, with a young core and an inventory of young prospects surplus to requirements, they pulled the trigger and brought in the superstar in Donovan Mitchell. Now they look like a lock for a top-three seed in the East.

Danny Ainge has the chops and the assets to pull off some similar value trades for prospects, but the reality is they won’t be bad enough this season to involve themselves in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. Even if the team’s other vets move at the deadline or in the off-season, they’ll still probably be too good to be bad.

I like this Jazz team – they’re so much fun to watch and you have to love seeing a player like Lauri Markkanen thrive when given the opportunity. But Lauri isn’t a superstar, and this Jazz team might cap at not-good-enough-yet-not-bad-enough while he’s their best player.

I don’t want to throw the baby out of with the bathwater, because it’s early days and Ainge has barely set up the board, let alone started making his moves. It’s good to appreciate what you have, and if you’re a basketball fan, you should ride this Laurimania in Utah while it lasts – the ride might just not end up going anywhere.

Written by
Marco Holden Jeffery

Marco is one half of The JVG NBA Tribute Show, a weekly NBA podcast that can be found wherever you get your podcasts. He's also a very welcome guest on The Deep Two NBA Podcast's Four-man Weave + Marco segment, adding another well-needed dash of cautious optimism.

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