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Lauri Markkanen unleashed might be this year’s surprise All-Star

Utah is 4-1, and Markkanen’s scoring has been one of opening week’s biggest surprise stories. The Jazz big man is thriving with in his new role.

Houston Rockets v Utah Jazz Photo by Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Every year there is one star who comes out of nowhere. We’re only a few games in, but we may have already stumbled upon a dark horse candidate to chase All-Star status: Lauri Markkanen.

Just one week into the season, only six players are averaging 22 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and shooting above 48 percent from the field: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luca Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic...and Lauri.

A ‘who’s who’ of MVP candidates grace the top of the NBA’s statistical categories, while Markkanen is the upstart joining this group after a hot start. But here’s the thing: he hasn’t been hot. Lauri is 8-33 (24.2 percent) from 3-point range to start the season, an abysmal mark for a guy who took over half his shots from behind the arc a year ago. No, we aren’t seeing a hot streak, but the reinvention of a player finally unleashed in a system that is right for him.

To call Markkanen miscast in Cleveland would be unfair to the Cavaliers. With the construction of their roster last year, placing him in a spot-up role as a shooter around their multi-big lineups featuring Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen was the best way to maximize all their pieces. Markkanen logged 64 percent of his minutes at the 3 last year in Cleveland, according to basketball-reference — he had less than 1% total during his four years with the Chicago Bulls.

Yet his time in Cleveland revealed how versatile a piece Lauri is, thanks in large part to his spot-up shooting ability. Smaller players will fly at him to chase him off the line, respecting his shot and betting that they can catch up to him when he drives it. What they underestimate is how good he is off the bounce when attacking closeouts, especially if he catches the ball on the move.

While his role was somewhat small and complementary by nature in Cleveland, Markkanen put a different version of his game on display this summer. Playing for his homeland of Finland in the FIBA Eurobasket, he was a legitimate star. The seven-footer averaged 27.9 points on 50-40-90 shooting, leading the Finnish squad to a seventh-placed finish as the only NBA player on the roster.

Markkanen was utilized by that team as a star, serving as their top option and a creation hub. While it’s easy to write off such a role because of the lack of top-tier talent next to him, his production still came against legitimate defenders and star players. He had 34 points against the Czech Republic, 33 against Israel and Deni Avdija, and a superb 43-point outing against Croatia — a group with five current or former NBA players.

He was efficient in so many different areas, too. According to Synergy Sports play-type data available from Eurobasket, he shot 13-20 in isolation situations and produced 1.208 points per possession (PPP) in the half-court, an elite metric over a seven-game stretch.

So much of what we saw from Lauri was stuff we never got to witness during his NBA career. He was thriving with a longer leash, drilling tough step-backs on either wing and displaying a face-up arsenal that we never thought possible.

Casually, this is a seven-foot forward hitting shots like this. If he were a pre-draft prospect nailing these looks at this level of consistency, scouts would be drooling over his potential. But because it was a five-year NBA role player, it was easier to dismiss as unsustainable. Bulls fans are staring at those clips with their jaws agape, as such a display seemed unfathomable merely a year ago.

Still, the flashes of skill were mind-boggling. There was more burst and athleticism than we’d seen. Lauri was playing above the rim as a driver, navigating tight spaces as a pick-and-roll handler, and showing a natural fluidity that wasn’t on display while standing in the corner for the Cavs or Bulls:

It quickly became evident through Eurobasket that what we were seeing was a player shackled by the confines of other NBA systems, a jumbo floor-spacer whose true skill set was never unearthed because, rather simply, he was never asked to do more than spot up.

In my eyes, the most positive trait for his long-term viability as a one-on-one creator was his use of physicality. Markkanen lived at the free throw line in Eurobasket, and utilized what skills trainers across the NBA impress upon their clients: the importance of using contact for creating separation before a pull-up jumper. By bumping his man with his understatedly large frame, Markkanen pushes his defender backward, thus giving him enough time to gather for a more controlled jumper or runner.

The results clearly worked for him during Eurobasket:

Fast-forward a few months to his time in Utah and Lauri looks much more like the player we saw against Croatia than the one next to Mobley and Allen. He’s coming off handoffs left and right, attacking closeouts whenever he feels like, handling a few jumbo ball screens and clearing out his teammates for late-clock looks.

Most of what Markkanen does right now is with a consistent turnaround jumper, another method he uses to create airspace from his man when there appears to be none.

That last one over Rudy Gobert is a grown-man bucket. The confidence that goes into attacking such a prominent defender is rare for a guy this early on in his breakout and gives hope that this is more than just a hot streak. Markkanen is carrying himself like a star player for the Utah Jazz, a huge reason why they are 4-1.

He’ll be the guy to step up and make a play when they need it in late-game situations. In that games against the Minnesota Timberwolves (an emotional revenge game for many involved), it was Markkanen who created a bucket in an end-game situation, finding something out of nothing after an initial drive was stalled out.

And once again, it was that physical bump into contact that allowed him to get his shot off.

There are a lot of Dirk Nowitzki tendencies in Markkanen’s smooth shot and old-man game. Perhaps nothing is more Dirk-esque than his use of the body bump before rising into his mid-range jumper. Creating space is what elite athletes do. Creating when space is absent is what elite play finishers do. Markkanen has a little more burst than Dirk ever really did off the bounce, as evidenced by his glimpses of creation both here and with the Finnish team.

Against Nowitzki’s former team, Lauri was showing some pretty touch off the glass. He’s a fun player to watch, performing in a non-flashy style with some surprisingly difficult shots, almost as if he’s playing ‘horse’ in his backyard:

How good Markkanen will continue to be — and how much this Jazz start is a hot streak at the right time — remains to be seen. It’s conceivable that Lauri comes back down to earth and gets figured out as an off-the-dribble threat. It’s also just as likely that his numbers spike once he starts draining triples at a rate everyone knows he’s capable of.

The point is this: in Utah, the reps will be there. The Jazz roster is starving for a player to come in and take the reigns, equally so for someone to be a reliable late-clock creation option. Based on the last several months of action, both in Utah and across the pond, this is looking less like a flash in the pan and more like the awakening of a uniquely potent scorer.