Finland is an interesting place. It’s the most sparsely-populated country in Europe, typically ranked among the most “livable” places in the world, and is home to Nokia, which (like myself) you just might have thought was a Japanese company. I personally know very little about the place outside of a few memories of Finnish men dominating the “World’s Strongest Man” competitions in the late nineties. I’m guessing I’m not alone in this – Finland just doesn’t come up in conversation very often and I’m going to assume it’s one of the reasons Lauri Markkanen and his talents continue to fly under the radar.
Markkanen was the first commit in what turned out to be a rather late-developing 2016 class for Arizona and at the time no one really seemed to grasp how much of an impact he was going to make. Few had heard of him, there was limited online information, and he had a relatively low ranking, likely a product of being an international player. But coming off a dominating performance at the FIBA U20 Euro Championship, it’s time to start paying closer attention – he has vaulted up to the #21 ranking (247sports) and it’s looking like he will be a much bigger contributor than people initially realized.
What is his game like?
First, it’s worth mentioning that Markkanen did not play high school basketball; he has been playing professionally in Finland for years and therefore caters to a certain style of play. European leagues tend to produce big men with more finesse than bruising physicality and Markkanen is no exception. He is a highly mobile 7-footer (which in and of itself does not grow on trees) with a well-developed outside shot. He is comfortable coming off screens as well as creating something for himself off the dribble. By all accounts, he’s the prototypical stretch-4 that NBA scouts covet and is something that AZ hasn’t had in recent years (Grant Jerrett doesn’t count). His FIBA numbers speak for themselves:
3 PT: 39.4%
That’s a fantasy player’s dream line and all the more impressive considering the modest minutes. And while he is widely considered to be more developed offensively than defensively, he is not expected to be a liability on the other end of the floor assuming he used according to his gifts. His lateral quickness and mobility allow him to keep up with smaller players after perimeter switches and he garners an impressive amount of steals for a 4. He has the strength and athleticism to hassle and keep opposing post players in front of him, but also limited length and is not considered a shot-blocking rim-protector. He will likely need to be paired with a defensive-oriented 5 (i.e. Chance Comanche) in order to thrive in his preferred role, which involves a great deal of movement.
What should we expect from him this year?
Arizona’s line up is a bit of a mystery at the moment given the depth of talent at the wing, but the front-court is slightly easier to predict purely based on the limited possibilities. While Ray Smith can play the 4, the only other big men expected to be in the regular rotation are Comanche, Dusan Ristic, and Markkanen. Comanche is considered to be more of a defensive specialist and is expected to play primarily at the 5 (i.e. paired with Markkanen rather than in place of him). And while Ristic has value and experience, he is far from locked into the starting role. Minutes at the 4 should be there for the taking.
I must reiterate that no one really quite knows how this is all going to shake out yet, but you can reasonably expect lineups resembling the following (or some variation thereof):
Allen / Trier / Smith / Markkanen / Comanche
Simmons / Trier / Alkins / Smith / Ristic
Unless Alkins forces his way into the lineup and Smith gets shifted to the 4, there is a great chance that Markkanen will be the starting PF, but if for whatever reason that does not come to pass he should still log well over 20 minutes per game and play a major role.
What are his future prospects?
Markkanen’s skill set is highly valued in today’s NBA and barring injury or some other unforeseen circumstance he will likely be first round pick in the coming years. When exactly that will take place is another matter – draftexpress.com predicts he will be the #13 overall pick in 2017, while nbadraft.net has him slated for 2018 (currently ranked #19). Some are already comparing him to Dirk Nowiztki, and while it’s undoubtedly premature to compare a 19 year old to arguably the greatest international player ever, it’s an indication that Markkanen will likely have a long and prosperous professional career. The fact that it’s even a conversation at this point should put Wildcat fans on the edge of their seats for this coming season.