Sweet-Shooting, 7-Foot Freshman Lauri Markkanen Has Off-the-Charts Potential

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterDecember 22, 2016

TUCSON, AZ - NOVEMBER 30: Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats reacts after making a three point basket during the second half of the NCAA college basketball game against the Texas Southern Tigers at McKale Center on November 30, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona. Arizona won 85-63. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
Chris Coduto/Getty Images

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Arizona freshman Lauri Markkanen answers questions in a matter-of-fact way. The Finnish forward is concise and serious.

But when the subject of watching film and studying other players comes up, the hardened look disappears. He finally smiles.

"Obviously, Dirk [Nowitzki]," he says.

Nowitzki is also the name that regularly comes up when a skilled European big man lands in the United States. We're always searching for the next Dirk, kind of like we've been searching for "the next Michael." It's an exercise as useless as hunting for Big Foot. There is no next Dirk. Nowitzki is one of the greatest forwards ever.

But with Markkanen, it's hard not to at least bring up the name.

"There's kind of an instinct thereoverseas shooting bigs—to compare him to Dirk," an NBA scout said. "That's a comparison you should never make. But he's in that lineage of skilled, face-up, big 4 men."

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

At 19, Markkanen has the combination of shooting and skill in a 7-foot package that makes the imagination run wild. Scouts see him as a potential top-10 pick in a loaded draft; B/R NBA draft writer Jonathan Wasserman projects him to go seventh. While he gets less attention than some of his peers, the numbers show he's been the most efficient freshman in college basketball.

Through the first 13 games of the season, Markkanen is averaging 16.1 points and terrorizing defenses inside the arc and out. He makes 52 percent of his twos, shoots 83.3 percent from the free-throw line and 43.5 percent from beyond the arc.

That adds up to a 132.8 offensive rating, a number usually only three-point specialist guards reach.

In the 13 years of available data on the advanced statistics site kenpom.com, only two players 7'0" or taller who used at least 20 percent of their team's possessions have ever finished in the top five for offensive rating: Frank Kaminsky (126.2) in his 2014-15 National Player of the Year season and former Georgetown center Roy Hibbert (130.8).

Markkanen was in first a week ago. In the middle of a mini-shooting slump, he's slid to ninth.

Arizona coach Sean Miller has had the chance to coach some of the best young talent in the United States through his role with USA Basketball—first as an assistant with the under-18 team and then the head coach of the U-19 squad. He mentions lottery picks Myles Turner, Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson and Jaylen Brown and then players who are in the mix for the top pick this year: KU's Josh Jackson and Duke's Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum.

"Lauri is every bit who they are," Miller says.

TUCSON, AZ - NOVEMBER 18:  Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats handles the ball against De'von Barnett #5 of the Sacred Heart Pioneers during the first half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on November 18, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Pekka Markkanen made the journey before his son. Twenty-seven years ago, the elder Markkanen was a one-and-done player at the University of Kansas. Pekka came to America for the 1989-90 season to see how he stacked up against the best American big men. He picked the best basketball program that was recruiting him without ever visiting campus.

After starting 33 games for a Kansas squad that went 30-5 in 1989-90, Pekka headed back to Finland to finish his degree—it was going to take longer at KU—and get his professional career started in his homeland. But it was an important experience because when it came time to decide what to do with his phenom son, he knew the American college path was worthwhile.

"I could prove myself the most here," Lauri said. "I had to adjust to a lot of different things. I just wanted to get better."

Pekka also had another vision for his son. In his one season at Kansas, he did not attempt one three-pointer. He was a true post player as a professional, and he didn't want Lauri stuck on the blocks like he was.

"If [a coach] tried to put Lauri under the basket, we changed the team," Pekka said. "If you play under the basket your whole career when you handle the ball, it's going to be extremely difficult."

Lauri played guard most of his youth, and he's not just a big man who wants to play on the perimeter; he's effective there. He's already buried an Arizona team-best 27 threes.

With the Wildcats thin on the wing because of the absence of Allonzo Trier—the star sophomore is sitting out for unknown reasons—Markkanen has split time between small forward and power forward.

It's a weird sight when a college team rolls out a lineup with a 7-footer on the wing, but other than his height, Markkanen doesn't look out of place. He's an excellent post-feeder with the ability to pass with either hand. He also has the handles to attack out of isolation situations off the bounce.

Arizona has seen a lot of zone, as opponents have tried to make Miller's inexperienced guards beat them and avoid difficult matchups with Markkanen. Miller has countered by moving Markkanen all over the floor against a zone.

In one possession, he'll start on the wing, flash to the middle and eventually end up in the corner. You have to treat Markkanen like a deadeye shooter, not giving him any space on the catch, because he's been so accurate and he has a quick release.

"He's one of the best shooters I've seen," Miller said.

Miller has implored his team all season to get Markkanen more touches, and that hasn't been difficult because of his versatility. The Wildcats typically try to get him the ball for spot-up jumpers or in the post and mid-post, but using Markkanen in more of a playmaking role could be in the works.

"He's a very good passer," Miller said. "As we have more pieces out there, I think he'll be able to use that to his advantage."

The Wildcats have talent on the perimeter in freshmen Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins, but Miller is limited in what he can run because of their inexperience. If Trier is allowed to return this season, a Trier-Markkanen pick-and-roll could be deadly because of Markkanen's versatility. It will also provide a glimpse of how he'll be used down the road.

"He's what the NBA is really starting to value more just because he can dribble, shoot and pass from the position that he's going to play," a second scout said. "He's intriguing because he's so big and then he can make plays at the elbows. He can make plays in pick-and-rolls. He can pop. He can roll. Then he can make passes out of the pick-and-roll, too."

The big question mark with Markkanen is his body. Physically, he looks like a teenager. Trying to defend NBA big men could be a problem. He has short arms, and he's only blocked nine shots this season. But the team that drafts him could try him at small forward until his body allows him to be more successful at the 4, as the Phoenix Suns have done with rookie Dragan Bender.

Markkanen's defensive numbers are not good thus far—he's allowing 1.06 points per possession when his man finishes the play, per Synergy Sports. But he moves well laterally, and it's at least promising that he's shown off the ability to guard on the perimeter.  

"We haven't had the ideal setup for him," Miller said. "Because of our injuries, we've moved him around. Lauri plays most of the game at the small forward. It was never in the cards for him to do that. He also has to guard smaller players at times. If anybody should be confused, it's him, but he's just adapted so well.

"For his own development, it's an incredible gift, because he's being forced to learn everything: guarding perimeter players who are driving, guarding real physical low-post players. ...It's a crash course in basketball and what's to come for him."

When Markkanen does move to the post on a full-time basis, bigger players are going to try to test him physically. That hasn't seemed to bother him thus far. He does not shy away from contact, and he's been Arizona's best rebounder (7.3 boards per game). That's encouraging for when he starts to get stronger and thicker, which he should. He's only 19.

The competition of the Pac-12 should also provide a look at how ready Markkanen is to make the leap. He struggled early in Arizona's game against Gonzaga when the Zags threw their two athletic freshmen bigs at him. They swatted three of his shots in the first half, and he went 1-of-7 from the field.

But Markkanen does not lack confidence and showed a lot when he countered by getting even more aggressive. Miller set up a play to get him the ball in the mid-post on Arizona's first possession of the second half, and he went right at Gonzaga's Johnathan Williams. 

"To his credit, he's a warrior," the second scout said.

On Markkanen's worst shooting game of the season that night, he still managed to score 14 points—11 of which came in the second half.

The fact that he's even allowing himself to be tested in these environments is impressive to NBA scouts.

"He'd done enough [playing for Finland's junior national teams] that if he'd come out last year, he could have been a first-round draft pick," the first scout said. "There's been a recent trend of European guys who come over here, and it hurts their stock, like a guy like [Kansas wing] Svi Mykhailiuk is a good example. He didn't let that stop him. He came over, and he's playing well."

One focus for Markkanen at this level is improving his back-to-the-basket game. Pekka made a wise assessment that if his son was skilled, learning how to score from the blocks would be easier than if that's where they started. Markkanen said it's the part of his game that needs the most work, but he's still scoring at an efficient 1.2 points-per-possession clip on post-ups, per Synergy.

Miller expects to get him more touches there once he's able to move full time to power forward, and that will give him another opportunity to show off his ability as a setup man.

In the NBA, a post-up is not always meant to get a bucket but can be used to create a shot for someone else. This is another spot where Markkanen's passing comes in handy. Defenses have sent a hard double-team at him on a post-up only three times this year, per Synergy. He still scored on one of those possessions, and he found an open spot-up shooter on the other two. 

Once he draws a second defender, as he did in the clip below against Missouri, he immediately finds the open man, and his pass is perfectly on target in Rawle Alkins’ shooting pocket:

"I'm really looking forward to letting him play his natural position," Miller said. "He can play the 3, he can play the 5, but at the 4, I think that's where his future is. And he's really a tough matchup there."

Markkanen is warming up before Arizona's game at Missouri, and he's swishing turnaround, one-footed fadeaways over a teammate. It's a shot that was made famous by the man he loves to study: Nowitzki.

"I know I can make that one," he says. "But a fadeaway is not the best shot for us, so I'm not shooting it in games, but I have that in my back pocket."

Pekka says his son can do "so many other things" that he's yet to show off.

"If they get Allonzo Trier back, Lauri's game will change dramatically," Pekka says. "Then Lauri can start playing his own game."

These are the type of statements from parents that can make coaches cringe, but it's not meant to imply that Markkanen can start looking for his. Part of what we haven't seen, Pekka says, is his son creating for others.

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

The 2017 draft is deep with talent at point guard and on the wing, but scouts say it's thin on big men. It's not a given that Markkanen will bolt—Pekka says the family had a two-year plan heading into Arizona—but if he ends up slotted on draft boards where Wasserman projects him (seventh), he would have to strongly consider leaving.

"Some people will try to look at Lauri through the lens of Dirk or [Kristaps] Porzingis, and I think that's apples and oranges," a third scout told B/R. "I wouldn't say he's at all close to those guys as prospects."

The two comparisons that make sense to the scout are Kaminsky and former Gonzaga big man Kelly Olynyk, who were both lottery picks and have been productive NBA players. 

"He's certainly a much better player than Frank or Kelly were at that same age," the scout said. "It took Kaminsky and Olynyk until their fourth year of college to show what they can do."

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

While Markkanen is not the next Dirk, he might just be the closest thing the college game has seen to a Nowitzki. His ridiculous efficiency numbers indicate we're witnessing something special.

The question Arizona fans want answered is how good can the 18th-ranked Wildcats be at full strength. But even if that never happens, Miller knows his star freshman is just now starting to figure out the college game.

"He's very intelligent, and he loves the game," Miller says. "He's one of the hardest-working kids that I've coached. For him to be as talented as he is and being able to say that about him, I think you know how bright his future is."

And if we're to believe his father, we haven't seen anything yet.


C.J. Moore covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @CJMooreBR.


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