By Marco Munno
The Chicago Bulls picked a quality draft to pull the trigger on a rebuild after the trio of Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo predictably failed to ignite.
What was questionable for many after trading Butler for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft was the selection of Finland’s Lauri Markkanen ahead of a talent like Dennis Smith Jr.
Lauri Markkanen is actually Finnish for "Tall Isaiah Canaan"
— Noam Schiller (@noamschiller) June 23, 2017
Finland isn’t a traditional hotbed of basketball talent and, after years chasing the next Dirk Nowitzki with players like Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Andrea Bargnani, teams are skittish about spending prime resources on tall, European shooters at the big positions.
Ahead of the draft, teams only had a solid freshman year at Arizona—in which Markkanen averaged 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, shooting 42.3 percent on three-pointers—to analyze his game. He provided quality production, but his size and athleticism put him somewhere between a power forward and center with visions of Ryan Anderson or Channing Frye dancing through evaluators’ heads.
With a solid showing at Eurobasket, however, perhaps Lauri Markkanen deserves some closer evaluation.
Even with the absence of starts likes Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milos Teodosic, Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic, the competition this summer still included a lot of talented players; with the Gasol brothers, Goran Dragic, Kristaps Porzingis and Bogdan Bogdanovic as featured players.
With averages of 19.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, Markkanen stood tall among EuroBasket’s MVP candidates.
The young big man showed his soft shooting touch translated against more organized and experienced defenses, against both man-to-man and zone defenses on, essentially, 50-40-90 shooting splits (53.3 percent from the field, 47.8 percent on 3.8 three-point attempts per game, and 89.7 percent from the free-throw line).
A high, quick release on Markkanen’s shot makes it difficult to contest, even for NBA players, offsetting any slowness afoot.
And even that can be overstated, with Lauri Markkanen showing he’s comfortable running the court with fluid movement and some deft ball handling for his size.
As a bonus, he showed flashes of some remarkable court vision, punishing double teams by creating easier buckets for his teammates at times.
Markkanen was mostly featured in the pick and pop in college:
But he was also able to run off screens to find open looks for himself.
This combination of skills makes him a valuable screener for guys who can attack the rim. But at the NBA level, he’ll have to prove his ability to punish mismatches; but if his play this summer is any indication, the offense will come.
The ceiling to his career will be determined on the defensive end. Markkanen has a good feel for the game:
There are just questions about whether his frame or athleticism will ever be enough to deal with NBA athletes.
Nowitzki worked himself into a capable defender in his prime, so there’s some hope; though Markkanen’s much lower offensive ceiling changes the equation of the value of his inevitable defensive tradeoffs.
Markkanen’s NBA career already comes with the burden of higher than expected draft status on top of being the primary asset in a return for a traded franchise cornerstone. But if his work this summer proves anything, there’s a lot of space to inhabit between Dirk Nowitzki and Andrea Bargnani, and plenty of room for Lauri Markkanen in the NBA.