How leading Finland revved Markkanen's engine for Utah
HELSINKI (Finland) - It was not the primary objective of Finland to prime Lauri Markkanen for year one with the Utah Jazz, yet putting him at the controls of the Susijengi at EuroBasket 2022 did just that.
Traded from Cleveland to the Jazz just hours before the start of Finland's EuroBasket campaign, the Jazz were keen to see Markkanen in action and what he was did was unforgettable, leading the team on a very impressive run to the Quarter-Finals.
"Obviously for the Finnish national team, he is the focal point," Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy said.
"He's not really put into any sort of a lane or a box. It's a little bit of everything, or actually a lot of everything for them. And so that's the mind that we've had with him. Let's not try to limit him...
"Lauri is showing night in and night out that he's got a lot to offer. He's not just a catch-and-shoot player. He's not just a screener. He's not just a guy that moves around off ball screens. HE does all those things. He's good in transition..
"It's a luxury as a coach for sure to have a guy that you can really try to be creative with."
What really opened Hardy's eyes to Markkanen about a quality in his game that he had not fully appreciated was Markkanen's ability to get immediately intro transition.
"The number of times that he got the rebound and just pushed it for them," he said. "He showed a comfort level with the ball and I hadn't really seen that with him in the places he had been...
"When you watched him play for Finland, it was 'Get the rebound and just go.'. We took that, carried it into our whole team. We have a lot of guys with license to push the ball. So watching him this summer definitely helped us shape a lot of our thoughts."
Markkanen played at an incredibly high level at the EuroBasket, which was all the more remarkable considering how he only learned of his relocation on the evening before EuroBasket while "he was playing 'Call of Duty' in his hotel room with a teammate.
Markkanen couldn't sleep that evening, and ended up wandering the streets of Prague with the national team trainer and before focusing on the task at hand.
Before the EuroBasket, the versatile 2.13m (7ft) power forward dominated for the Susijengi in European Qualifiers for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023, helping them seal a spot in the event with two windows to spare!
But at the EuroBasket, it was as if he wanted to show his new employers they had not made a mistake by acquiring him in a trade. Markkanen, 25, was smooth and powerful. It was as if he had descended from Krypton and come to save the world. Or at least save Finland.
Markkanen had Superman-like numbers at the EuroBasket, where he was easily one of the best players in the tournament. He led averaged 27.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 assists per game.
His performances were astonishing, like the 43-point master-class against Croatia in the Round of 16.
He soared through the air for dunks, hit difficult three-pointers and made 17 of 23 shots from the floor overall.
The magnitude of that performance cannot be overstated considering his efficiency in the game was +47. The 43 points was a new Finnish national team record at a major event.
Markkanen finished second in scoring average behind Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.3) at the EuroBasket and was fourth in efficiency (30.4) behind Antetokounmpo (32.7), Nikola Jokic (31.7) and Aleksandar Vezenkov (31.2).
Playing for Finland at the EuroBasket did Utah, who acquired Markkanen in a trade from Cleveland the day before the tournament, a huge favor because he arrived in Salt Lake City raring to go.
"It showed I can do multiple things on the floor on both ends, so it built my confidence back up," he said.
"I SHOWED THE WAY THAT I CAN PLAY BASKETBALL... IT BUILT MY CONFIDENCE BACK UP."
"I feel ready to go this year after having that experience this summer and especially being in shape after playing all that competitive basketball."
Markkanen carried the Susijengi. He was their talisman. He knew it and he embraced it.
He understood he was the target of game planning from opponents and still had to be productive, which he most certainly was.
Markkanen knew that taking the big shots at the EuroBasket was his responsibility, and it was something he embraced, with the biggest evidence coming in the win over Croatia.
"I think that I showed the way that I can play basketball," he said.
Markkanen raised eyebrows at the 24-team event because he had the ball in his hands a lot and played wonderfully. He was aggressive, often driving to the basket to score, or to pass.
"I didn't surprise myself," he said.
Another aspect to the EuroBasket that will end up helping Markkanen was the physicality.
"You're not going to get calls that easily (at the EuroBasket)," he said. "It was just a great experience this summer, to have one of the most competitive EuroBaskets in a long time. Most NBA guys went back and played for their country."
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Pre-season expectations of the rebuilding Jazz were not high. At least not from the outside.
Yet as starts go, the Jazz have enjoyed a good one. Markkanen has looked solid and often spectacular, too.
The team started with wins over Denver, Minnesota and New Orleans before falling to Houston, and Markkanen has averaged 21.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and three assists.
Would Cleveland would have pulled the trigger on the trade and sent Markkanen to Utah after watching him at the EuroBasket? Maybe not, because he was positively dazzling.
Utah look like they have acquired a special player.