Who is Lauri Markkanen? Most NBA and college basketball fans haven't heard of him yet, but the incoming Arizona freshman is worth becoming familiar with. As an international player, Markkanen's name wasn't on the high school recruiting boards that garner so much fanfare, but he's got enough talent that DraftExpress slots him No. 14 in their 2017 mock draft. Considering the hype next year's draft is already receiving, projecting as a lottery talent is nothing to sneeze at.
Markkanen didn't play high school basketball in the U.S. but instead played in his home country of Finland in the Pro B Division. He also just wrapped up playing for the Finnish team at the FIBA U20 Europe tournament in Helsinki. Finland finished a disappointing 15th out of 16 teams, but it was not due to lack of effort from Markkanen. Despite essentially playing up a year in age, as Markkanen only turned 19 in May, he still was one of five players named to the all-tournament team for his performance.
Markkanen only played 26.5 minutes a game yet still led the entire tournament in scoring, with averages of 24.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.0 assist, 2.3 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game. To give you an idea of how dominant his performance was, that's a line of 37.6/13.0/1.5/3.5/2.0 per 40 minutes. Even more impressively, Markkanen scored over a third of his team's points in relatively limited minutes while only averaging 1.9 turnovers per game and posting shooting splits of 54.9/39.4/83.3 from 2/3/FT. Markkanen was Finland's clear best talent and offensive focal point and still managed to have a ridiculously efficient 62.7% true shooting percentage.
The most obviously appealing part of Markkanen's game is that even at 7'0 tall he can really shoot the ball. Across four FIBA tournaments since 2013, Markkanen has shot 40.6 percent from three on 138 attempts and 80.8 percent from the free throw line. A lot of young big men, like Henry Ellenson for example, come into college with a reputation as being stretch bigs but don't yet have a developed enough stroke to efficiently score from deep. Markkanen's year-over-year success and elite free throw shooting put him a step ahead of many other young big guys whose shooting is more myth than production.
From an aesthetic perspective, Markkanen cocks the ball a little too much, which slows down his shot, but does have a nicely fluid and high release. Where Markkanen's shooting is most impactful is in pick-and-roll. He's developed the type of footwork to quickly pop and be a threat from three, forcing the man guarding him to give a weak hedge or leave him open. What really separates Markkanen from most big men is his comfort level shooting on the move. He gets his feet set quickly and even has shown some aptitude for shooting off the dribble.
The reason Markkanen is able to score the ball so efficiently is his combination of shooting and face-up game. When he catches the ball in the mid-post, defenders are forced to play up and respect his shot, but he's got a powerful first step and can really attack the basket downhill. Unlike most stretch-four European bigs, he even has some explosion to his game around the basket. Watching him you're struck by how powerful he seems attacking the basket. Guys with his size and strength just don't typically move with that type of fluidity. Finland even ran some pick-and-roll sets with him as the ball handler to get him going to the hoop.
Markkanen's impressive athleticism also translates to the defensive end of the floor. He's not an elite jumper from a standstill and has relatively short arms so he's more of a 4 than a 5, but he's got the type of mobility to be a high-impact defender at the 4 position. Finland's scheme let him aggressively hedge pick and rolls, and he did a great job disrupting ball handlers and wreaking havoc. Averaging 3.5 steals per 40 minutes as a 7-footer is pretty insane, and a testament to his combination of mobility and solid instincts. The few times Markkanen switched onto guards or was attacked in face-up situations he more than held his own.
It's hard to find any glaring weaknesses in Markkanen's game. He could stand to improve his ball handling and passing, and his lack of a length hurts his defensive versatility, but he's an inside-outside player on both ends of the court. On offense, he's a great shooter with the athleticism to attack the basket, and on defense, he has the strength to rebound inside and the quickness to guard on the perimeter.
Dusan Ristic is the only returning big man with experience at Arizona, so the path to playing time should be there for Markkanen. Adjusting to the college game can be difficult for international players, but 7-footers with Markkanen's combination of athleticism and skill simply don't come along all that often. He should have a very productive year at Arizona, and certainly deserves a place in the lottery conversation for next year's draft.