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Lauri Markkanen Could Be the Latest Game-Changing Stretch 5

Even at 7 feet, he’s as good a shooter as any prospect

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Players like Lauri Markkanen are no longer on the cutting edge. Back in 2006, when NBA teams were looking everywhere for the next Dirk Nowitzki, Andrea Bargnani was taken no. 1 overall. Sweet-shooting 7-footers were all the rage in those days, but the bloom has come off the rose in recent years. Markkanen is a much better prospect than Bargnani, but he’s widely projected to go in the back half of the lottery in this year’s draft. The cycle has come full circle: 19 years after Dirk slipped to the no. 9 overall pick in 1998, the Mavs could end up taking Markkanen at the exact same spot this year. However, given how much the league has changed in the past two decades, his ceiling may not be as high as it would have been a generation ago.

Markkanen shoots better than all of the top guards in this year’s draft, despite being well over half a foot taller than any of them:

At 7 feet tall and 225 pounds, Markkanen has a high release point and an effortless stroke, which allows him to get his shot off quickly. He can shoot from anywhere, and he should have no trouble immediately extending his range behind the deeper NBA 3-point line:

Markkanen is the best 3-point-shooting big man to come out of college since Ryan Anderson. Channing Frye and Kelly Olynyk averaged less than one 3-point attempt per game in their last season in the NCAA, while Kevin Love shot 35.4 percent from beyond the arc in his one year at UCLA. It took Frye and Love years before they found an NBA coach willing to let them shoot 3s, but the team that drafts Markkanen will give him the green light to start hoisting from the perimeter right away. In the right situation, he could have the same impact on his new team that Anderson had in his first season in Houston.

The full extent of Markkanen’s offensive ability might have been hidden in his one season at Arizona. Sean Miller is a defensive-minded coach, and he preferred to play Markkanen with a traditional big man at center and an armada of long and rangy wings. The problem is those players struggled to shoot the ball consistently, allowing opposing defenses to sit in zones, negating much of Markannen’s ability to open up the floor. He never had the luxury of playing with a traditional point guard or elite playmaker who could run the pick-and-pop and create easy shots for him in the half court. Instead, the Wildcats had a lot of scorers who needed the ball in their hands, and Markkanen’s role in the offense diminished following the return of Allonzo Trier from a season-long suspension in January. Markkanen took only nine shots in their Sweet 16 upset loss to Xavier, compared to 19 for Trier.

Put him in a role similar to Anderson’s in Houston and things would look different. Any guard who can get to the rim and make plays when the defense collapses will look really good next to Markkanen. If he is playing in a spread offense with a high-level playmaker and two or three other 3-point shooters, there’s no way the defense will be able to guard everyone. Defenders have to stay glued to Markkanen at the 3-point line, which creates huge driving lanes to the rim. Look at how open Parker Jackson-Cartwright is when he comes off a screen set by Markkanen at the top of the key:

It’s easy to see how Markkanen could improve a team when you look at what Anderson’s ability to stretch the floor did for the Rockets offense this season. He had the highest net rating (plus-7.9) on the team in the regular season. However, things changed in the playoffs, when his net rating plummeted to minus-2.2. Anderson went through a shooting slump at the worst possible time, while his inability to defend in space was exposed by the Spurs offense. San Antonio repeatedly used Anderson’s man to set ball screens, creating an open 3 for either the ball handler coming off the screen or one of his teammates when Houston sent help.

One of the big adjustments that Gregg Popovich made after Houston’s resounding 126–99 victory in Game 1 was to go smaller up front. The series changed in the fourth quarter of Game 2, when the Spurs played Jonathon Simmons as a small-ball 4, forcing Anderson into an almost impossible position. He had no chance of guarding Simmons off the dribble, and he had difficulty keeping up with him in transition and tracking him around the perimeter. Markkanen will have similar troubles when teams go small against him. There wasn’t much he could do against an NBA-prospect combo forward like Miles Bridges of Michigan State when he was forced to guard him at the 3-point line:

Rather than keeping Anderson on Simmons, Mike D’Antoni started playing him as a small-ball 5, which kept him matched up with more traditional big men. Not only did it allow D’Antoni to hide Anderson on defense, but the move also opened up the Rockets offense and prevented the Spurs big men from dropping back in the paint on the pick-and-roll. Dallas did something similar with Dirk during the regular season, starting him at center and stretching the defense past the breaking point. Playing an elite-shooting big man in maximum space not only allows an offense to reach new heights, but makes it easier to live with their issues on defense. According to the tracking numbers at Hoop Lens, in the limited amount of time (119 possessions) that Arizona played Markkanen at center this season, the Wildcats had an eye-popping offensive rating of 1.31.

The problem with using Markkanen in that role in the NBA is that he’s nowhere near as good a rebounder as Anderson or any of his other models at the next level. Markkanen was the worst rebounder of the five in their final season of college, respectively:

If the ball doesn’t bounce directly toward Markkanen, he has a tendency to just watch it rather than get physical and mix it up in traffic:

If Markkanen isn’t going to offer much on defense and the glass, the only way for him to start on a good NBA team is to make him a primary option on offense. The good news on that front is that he’s much more than a shooting specialist, even though that was the primary way he was used at Arizona. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Markkanen was an elite roll man (81st percentile among NCAA players), post player (94th percentile), and isolation scorer (91st percentile). He became more comfortable putting the ball on the floor as the season went on, and if he can consistently take two dribbles and rise up for a shot on the move, he will be almost unguardable:

To be used in that role, though, Markkanen will need to become a better passer, as he averaged 0.9 assists and 1.1 turnovers per game at Arizona. While their half-court offense was often a brutal slog and he didn’t play with a lot of space around him, he also struggled to consistently deliver the ball in the right places for his teammates to score:

Even if Markkanen never becomes a better rebounder or playmaker, he could still come off the bench for an elite team as a supercharged version of Frye or Olynyk. Guys with that skill set can be incredibly valuable in the playoffs: Frye shot the Raptors big men off the floor in the Cavs’ second-round sweep, and Olynyk was the hero of the Celtics’ Game 7 victory over the Wizards in the second round. However, they become less useful as the caliber of opponent increases and offenses spread the floor and force them to defend pick-and-rolls in space, in much the same way as the Spurs attacked Anderson. Frye has barely played in this year’s Eastern Conference finals, while Olynyk has been routinely embarrassed by LeBron James. Even Love saw his role somewhat minimized against the Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals. He came up big in Game 7, including stopping Steph Curry in the final seconds in a defensive play that will live forever, but he played only 12 minutes in the Cavs’ win in Game 6.

Of course, the vast majority of NBA teams never have to worry about how their players will fare in the Finals because they never make it that far. The teams in the position to draft Markkanen didn’t even make the playoffs. He’s one of the only rookies who is immediately going to make his team better next season, and he has one of the highest floors of any player who will be taken in the lottery. Pair a sweet-shooting big man like Markkanen with an elite shot creator and good things will happen. If he stays healthy, he’s going to have a long career in the NBA, and he could swing a playoff series on the right team. Markkanen’s defense may hurt his team if it advances deep enough into the playoffs, but his offense is also good enough to help them get there in the first place.