2016-17 Season Stats:
49.6% from the field
43.3% from three
83.3% from the free-throw line
Weight: 230 pounds. Height w/shoes: 7′0″. Wingspan: N/A . Max Vert: N/A
A shorter Kristaps Porzingis.
A bigger, past-his-prime Rashard Lewis.
Take a deep breath.
Now everybody say it with me: Lauri Markkanen is not Dirk Nowitzki.
Like most tall Euros with a smooth jumper, Markkanen has received the inevitable Dirk comparisons. And as with almost every other European big who’s been lazily compared to Nowitzki, Markkanen’s chances of reaching the same lofty heights as the German legend are slim to none. Despite the hyperbolic comparisons though, there’s also this: Lauri Markkanen can play some dang basketball.
The 7-foot freshman hailing from Finland has been the focal point on offense for a top-five Arizona team this season. This year Markkanen is shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc on almost 4.5 attempts per game and posting an effective field goal percentage of .589. Unlike some other recent top-10 selections from Arizona whose stellar three-point shooting in college hasn’t translated to the NBA (looking at you Derrick Williams, Aaron Gordon and Stanley Johnson), Markkanen’s strong 84 percent free throw percentage suggests that his performance should hold up.
His strong, athletic frame and silky-smooth shooting touch allows Markkenan to be incredibly efficient. He may not quite be Nowitzkian in that sense, but he might very well be the closest thing that the college game has ever produced. According to Sports Reference, of all players listed as center or forward since 2009, only thirty one others have shot as efficiently on that many attempts with a usage rating over 20. Only seven of them played in major conferences like Markkanen. And of those seven, none had the same height or athletic profile of Markkanen.
Markkanen’s jumper is fluid, and his height combined with a slight natural fade in his release makes it easy for him to get his shot off, even allowing him to rise up and fire over defenders. He’s probably most comfortable popping out as the screener in high pick-and-roll action, but has already shown some advanced ability to get open by moving without the ball. Additionally, he’s athletic enough to attack the basket and get to the rim with a couple of dribbles should a defender close out too hard. As an added bonus he’s a solid rebounder, averaging 9.4 boards per 40 minutes, and does a good job taking care of the rock, with his turnover percentage this season down below nine percent. Throw in some great bloodlines (both of his parents played basketball on the national team for Finland, while his brother Eero plays for the nation’s soccer team) and there’s a lot to like about Markkanen as a prospect.
Markkanen has his weaknesses too of course. He lacks any semblance of a post-up game, which will be important in the more athletic NBA. If he wants to reach his ceiling, he’s probably going to have to develop at least one or two solid back-to-the-basket moves in order to make teams think twice before simply switching a smaller player onto him in the pick and roll. Now, NBA defenses would likely just switch any action he’s involved in, similarly to how Ryan Anderson has been defended in the past, and feel comfortable that he wouldn’t do too much damage on the block against a smaller player. He also isn’t much of a facilitator, notching more than two assists in only two games this year.
Despite ESPN’s Chad Ford reporting that scouts and general managers around the league consider Markkanen to be a stretch four as a pro, to me he seems like an ideal stretch five in a league that continues to move towards its inevitable destiny of five-out basketball. Think maybe an 11th grade Kristaps Porzingis or a bigger, more rugged Rashard Lewis.
While he doesn’t come close to matching the rim protection that Porzingis brings, he projects to be a much better defender than Lewis. With his average wingspan, he may never be a force on that end of the floor, but he tries on defense, and as a mobile 7-footer that goes a long way. His defensive box plus-minus of 1.8 indicates he’s not a liability on defense for Arizona, and with some work and NBA coaching, especially if he can hold up as a stretch five, he should end up being at least average on D.
Markkanen is currently projected to go somewhere in the five to ten range on draft day, right in the mix with guys like Dennis Smith Jr., Malik Monk, Jayson Tatum, and Jonathan Isaac. Markkanen will in all likelihood be the first big off the board in what looks to be a draft loaded with guards and wings. Unfortunately for him, many of the worst teams in the league are already stocked with young big men who have some degree of draft pedigree. But some shooting-needy team, like say Lewis’ old squad in Orlando, will surely be unable to resist snapping him up somewhere in the top ten.
Markkanen’s size and efficiency, combined with his ability stretch the floor, make him a very unique player coming into the league out of college. Some circles of the internet might even describe him as a unicorn. But what Markkanen really might be is a harbinger of things to come. As unique a player as he is now, as the league continues to move toward maximum spacing, players of Markkenan’s ilk will likely become more common. But for now, teams can close their eyes and dream of his sweet shooting stroke, height, and mobility. And maybe, just barely imagine him swishing over fools in the future like…well, you know.