NBA Hoops

‘I didn’t want to just be another guy’: Inside Lauri Markkanen’s star turn in Utah

Melissa Rohlin

Lauri Markkanen took off his baseball cap as he sat down for a recent postgame news conference. He then shook out his curly blonde hair as though he was in a shampoo commercial. 

“Which is better?” he asked reporters, putting the cap back on his head. “Better like this?”

Markkanen isn’t used to this newfound level of fame. He seeks styling advice from writers. He smiles widely when approached for an exclusive interview. And after being asked a question about his personal success, he worries whether he gave his teammates enough credit. 

“I mentioned my teammates, yeah?” he asks, after talking about them for much of his response. 

The 25-year-old forward is having a breakout season for the Utah Jazz, a team projected to be in the next lottery, but instead a half-game out of first place in the Western Conference at 12-8. Markkanen is their clear top player, a guy who has seemingly transcended the confines of being a role player overnight, transforming into one of this season’s biggest surprises. 

Now, he could even be in the running to be an All-Star, something he has long dreamed about but had always seemed more of a fantasy than a possibility until recently.

“When I got into the league, I didn’t want to just be another guy,” Markkanen told FOX Sports this week. “I wanted to be an All-Star.”

This season, the 6-11 forward has evolved into a guy who can do it all. He has the speed and agility of someone much smaller. He has the shooting range of a guard. When big guys defend him, he blows past them. When smaller guys pick him up, he uses his height to shoot over them. 

He’s averaging 22.0 points on 52.9% shooting and 8.5 rebounds a game, a marked increase from the 14.8 points on 44.5% shooting and 5.7 rebounds a game he averaged last season with Cleveland

Markkanen has seemingly been unlocked, something he attributes to a combination of having the right coach, playing alongside teammates who believe in him, and entering this season in top shape after playing for Finland at the EuroBasket this summer. 

First-year coach Will Hardy knew he wanted to do something different with Markkanen after watching him play for his home country. 

“They used him as a ball-handler, they put him in isolation, they used him as a screener, they moved him around off the ball — and so really, the thing I learned from that is don’t put him in a box,” Hardy said. “Be willing to live with a few mistakes here and there. And just live with…

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