There aren't many big men who've created waves yet in the early 2017 NBA draft discussion. Arizona's Lauri Markkanen is one of the exceptions, though his skill set doesn't reflect a traditional big man's game.
"This kid is a stud," an NBA executive told Bleacher Report. "I've watched him over seven times—his skill level and soft touch from outside are things one can't teach. Get guys to have him lower so we can steal him."
A 7-footer whose shot selection more closely resembles a wing's than a power forward's or center's, the Finnish freshman is executing moves that mirror New York Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis.
The NBA's scouting lens has picked up Markkanen's rare offensive versatility as well. After leading the U20 European Championships in scoring over the summer, Markkanen has carried that momentum to Arizona, where he's averaging 16.8 points and shooting a red-hot 47.7 percent from three.
|Markkanen's 2016-17 Stats|
|FG pct.||Points||Rebounds||Assists||3PT pct.||3PTM|
The Porzingis comparison stems from Markkanen's perimeter scoring for a 7'0", 230-pounder. His mechanics and track record both fuel convincing shooting potential.
In four FIBA tournaments dating back to 2013 (33 games), he combined to make 56 of 138 threes (40.6 percent) before arriving at Arizona. With a fluid, smooth release and effortless range, he's already hit 21 of 44 threes through 10 games as a Wildcat.
"Making shots in our league is an art," the executive said. "It's a skill no coach, you or me can teach. One hundred percent, kid is special."
Once he transitions, Markkanen's size and jumper should keep him afloat and create a high floor that reduces perceived risk. But it hasn't just been spot-up shooting that's drawn attention. Like Porzingis, Markkanen can knock down jumpers off screens and even create his own with pull-up body control and step-back footwork:
Even though the 7'3" Porzingis is taller, at their heights, these aren't defendable shots, especially when coming off the dribble.
By being able to put the ball on the floor and stop-and-pop, Markkanen makes defenders pay for closing out too hard, something his catch-and-shoot accuracy can force them to do. And in one-on-one situations, he's shown he can separate into balanced looks that fall in his wheelhouse.
Just as there has been support backing Porzingis as a center, scouts believe Markkanen can max out his potential at the 5.
"I think Markkanen's best future would be as a 5 because the 5 man in the NBA can still stretch a guy out and not have to bounce it," one West Coast scout said. "He has a legit 7-foot frame. He does have some length; he's not a short-armed guy. I like his ability to put on weight and actually be a stretch 5. I think that's where a lot of people like him.
"If he can be that rim protector, a little better rebounder, he'll make a lot of money. Because on the offensive side, he's a real tough matchup as a 5 man. His draft status will move up remarkably if teams think they can play him at center."
Other than measurements, defense is the obvious differentiator between the two and the main reason Markkanen's ceiling may fall short.
Defensively, the scout likened Markkanen to Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic—another skilled big, though not one who blocks a lot of shots (career 0.9 per game). Markkanen has just seven in 315 minutes and isn't physical or intimidating around the basket.
"I know the easy comparison [for Markkanen] is Porzingis, but we really don't see him with that upside," one general manager said. "There are concerns, as with many European big men, of their ability to rebound in the physical nature of the NBA. And we don't currently project Lauri to be a plus rebounder or interior defender.
"We see him as more of a role player, sixth man, scoring threat off the bench, with an ability to become a Channing Frye-type of player, which I know isn't how the Arizona coaching staff sees Lauri. But once he fills out, we see him as more of an offensive-oriented perimeter-type player."
It raises the question of how to value Markkanen's unique offensive strengths versus his uninspiring defense and rebounding. His Porzingis-like scoring attack appears both enticing and believable, but it seems irresponsible to overlook his uninspiring interior presence.
Without the potential to make a difference at both ends of the floor, Markkanen can't be the NBA's next Unicorn.
He can, however, evolve into a lesser—yet highly effective—hybrid version. That should be good for late-lottery consideration in what's expected to be one of the better drafts of the decade.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are accurate as of December 14.