If you had gone to Lauri Markkanen before the beginning of this season and told him by February he would be an All-Star, he wouldn’t have agreed with you outright. But he would have had an inner confidence indicating that you knew what you were talking about.
In truth, Markkanen never set a far-reaching goal for himself this season, All-Star, All-NBA, that sort of thing. But he was coming off a FIBA tournament where he was one of the best players in the world. He felt stronger than he had at any point in his career than him. He felt like he knew who he was as a basketball player better than any version of Lauri Markkanen in the previous six seasons.
Self-confidence is one of the best traits you can have, especially for a player as talented as Markkanen. And it’s probably his best improvement throughout his career. So much of his career before coming to the Utah Jazz in the Donovan Mitchell trade this past offseason had been spent as a talented player who lacked that sort of confidence.
As this season began, Markkanen knew what was in store for him. Not in the sense of grand accolades, but in the sense of knowing who he was as a player and finally knowing his path to being a good player in this league every single night.
“I had a high level of confidence coming in, especially after the summer I had,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t specifically write down All-Star as one of my goals, but I wanted to take things day by day and stay in the moment. I wanted to do what it takes to get wins and build this thing with this team.
“So, All-Star didn’t really cross my mind. But I came in here ready to work and ready to do what it takes every day.”
On Thursday evening, Markkanen was named to his first All-Star team, in his first season with the Jazz, in the season the All-Star game is in Utah and in the first season for the Jazz post-Mitchell and post-Rudy Gobert . When you look at it from face value, it’s a stunning accomplishment, individually, and for the franchise.
Markkanen was originally drafted by the Chicago Bulls and was immediately branded as the kind of 7-footer who can play on the interior and perimeter and thrive in this version of the NBA. But things didn’t work out in Chicago and he ended up in Cleveland last season with the Cavaliers, where he played well but he was still playing a role behind Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen.
When Markkanen was included in the Mitchell trade, he wasn’t exactly thought of as a throw-in, but he certainly wasn’t thought of as a potential star. The general thinking was maybe Markkanen would be a solid starter going forward. Certainly, he was a candidate for Danny Ainge, Justin Zanik and the Jazz front office to flip for more assets by the trade deadline if he played well.
Internally, the Jazz celebrated Markkanen’s inclusion in the trade. They thought incoming head coach Will Hardy could unlock Markkanen in a way that hadn’t happened for him previously in his career. And, for the amount of talent he possessed, the front office thought Markkanen was undervalued.
And for himself, Markkanen wouldn’t change any of it. He went through difficult times in Chicago. Things were more stable for him in Cleveland. But the adversity, the enduring people calling him to bust as a high lottery pick, being in three cities in seven seasons, Markkanen looks at those difficult times as part of the process and as the launch pad for the player he is now.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Markkanen said. “I’m here, and that’s the biggest thing. And I kind of had to go through that stuff to get here.”
What is “here” for Markkanen?
He’s averaging 24.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Jazz. He’s shooting 52 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range. He’s a No. 1 option for the first time in his career. He’s led the Jazz to a 27-26 record — when the Jazz were supposed to be one of the bottom-dwellers of the Western Conference — heading into Friday night’s matchup against the Atlanta Hawks.
Markkanen has had one season — his second season with the Bulls — where he’s even come close to sniffing those numbers. That season he averaged 18.7 and 9.0 rebounds. It was a good season. But nothing Markkanen has done has come close to this season. He was a lock to be selected for the All-Star Game. That’s how well he’s played. He is one of the favorites to win NBA Most Improved Player. He’s at the very least in the conversation for third-team All-NBA.
His confidence changed. Markkanen has always been a terrific shooter, but his 43 percent clip from three of him is a career-high. But, the Jazz front office was right in their assessment of Hardy’s ability to unlock Markkanen. The offense that the Jazz runs has Markkanen almost anywhere on the floor in a given possession.
Think of Micah Parsons of the Dallas Cowboys. On one snap, he lines up at linebacker. On another, he’s at defensive end. On another, he’s outside. On another, he’s on the interior. Offenses have such issues with Parsons because he’s so versatile that he can be anywhere from snap to snap.
Markkanen has sort of been the basketball version of that. On one possession he’s running pick-and-pop with Mike Conley. On the next, he’s running a pick and roll. Then, he beats his man up the floor for an easy dunk. On another, he catches and shoots from the corner. Then, it’s an isolation from the foul line. And on others, he’s cutting to the basket on the move for easy buckets.
Two things stand out for Markkanen this season. The versatility — he can play all three frontcourt spots — and his efficiency. Markkanen has been able to score a lot of points on limited usage, without commanding touches within the offense. It’s one of the reasons the Jazz have been so good offensively this season. Their best player is capable of getting his rhythm with a flow that allows everyone else to also get into a rhythm.
When you add it up, you get Markkanen sitting on a podium on Thursday night, wearing an aw-shucks smile, adorned in a black All-Star hoodie, addressing the media and talking about his journey to stardom.
It hasn’t been a perfect journey. But, for Markkanen, to get to Thursday night made it a satisfying one.
(Photo of Markkanen: Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)