USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach breaks down what fans should keep an eye on in the NCAA tournament’s West region.
USA TODAY Sports
TUCSON — Lauri Markkanen looked different on the screen, in the video footage shot more than an ocean away. Smaller. Still a good shooter, obviously, and enough to intrigue, but smaller. Definitely smaller.
“I don’t remember the first person who told me about him, but I watched a lot of film on him just to see how good he really was,” Arizona associate head coach Joe Pasternack said. “I still have it on my computer today. He looked, when you watch film, like a 6-6 guy who was a three man, and he was playing like a three man, running off staggers, coming off ball screens, scoring really not inside, not in the post but more off the block, fadeaway jumpers — and he looked terrific.
“When we first saw him in person — and he was 7 feet tall — we couldn’t believe it, how skilled he was.”
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Said Arizona head coach Sean Miller: “In my wildest imagination, I would have never pictured him being 7 feet tall.”
Part of that stunning skill level is genetic — Markkanen’s father, Pekka, played college basketball at Kansas and ultimately for the Finland national team, and his mother Riikka played professionally, too — and the other part was sheer effort. As a child, Markkanen spent hours with the hoop in his backyard in Jyväskylä, Finland, perfecting a shot so smooth it outpaced his growth spurt.
Markkanen isn’t sure at what point he shot up, only that it wasn’t in elementary school. “I don’t think I was the tallest kid in my class,” he said. But that wasn’t the case by the end of middle school, when he was.
Some youth coaches fall prey to the temptation of transforming a great shooter who grows tall into a more traditional post player, putting him in a box of sorts simply because of his height. Not Markkanen’s, whose coaches allowed him to diversify his game and learn a variety of ways to score — but never told him not to shoot from the perimeter. He always had the green light.
“When it’s going in, you can’t complain,” Markkanen said.
And so Markkanen continued to shoot, and shoot well, from deep. As he grew, topping out at an even 7 feet, he always kept long-range shooting as part of his repertoire.
It’s shown with his numbers this season, his freshman year at Arizona, which begins NCAA tournament play Thursday against No. 15 seed North Dakota in Salt Lake City. He averages 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds, shooting nearly 50% from the field and 43.2% from beyond the arc. He hit four threes in back-to-back games in the Pac-12 tournament last week. He also leads the Wildcats, shooting 82.4% from the free throw line.
“He’s the best shooter I think that we’ve had here,” Miller said. “You cannot categorize Lauri as a good shooter for big guys. You have to compare him to anyone who you look at as a good shooter. That’s who he is.”
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Said Pasternack: “What’s really truly remarkable is not just his three-point shot but how he drives the ball and pulls up like a guard. That’s where you say, ‘OK, that’s what you saw on video that he is more like a guard, a 7-foot guard that can drive the ball.’ ”
When Markkanen went through a midseason shooting slump that stretched through February, Miller put part of the blame for it on himself. He needed to make sure he was putting his star in position to get good looks.
But at the same time, the slump was, perhaps, a blessing in disguise. It coincided with a concerted effort by the coaching staff to help Markkanen develop his post presence. Coaches challenged him to focus on offensive rebounding — which hadn’t been a priority in international play, because of FIBA’s 24-second shot clock and the speed of the game, Miller said — as well as defensive rebounding, being more physical and posting up more frequently.
For example, on Arizona’s road trip to the Washington schools in mid-February, the goal for Markkanen was simple: 10 rebounds. He averaged 12 over the two games. As he’s grown in these specific areas, he’s also learned about and adapted to playing and playing against different defenses. In FIBA, it’s mostly a steady diet of different versions of man-to-man defenses, Miller pointed out.
“We talk about it all the time, being a complete player, and his goals,” Pasternack said. “There are a lot of players in the NBA who are just three-point shooters. There are 6-10 guys who are just three-point shooters. He wants to be a complete player. His goal is to be an NBA All-Star, not just a lottery pick and a good NBA player.
“We talk about it all the time: If there’s a hitter in baseball that’s just a home run hitter, one day, that’s going to go. What else do you bring to the table? Well, Lauri brings an outside game and an inside game. He can drive the ball and rebound the ball, and that’s his goal.”
Markkanen came to Arizona with a keen interest in and a strong background in strength training. Though he’s tall, he’s always been solid. And though Europeans — and particularly European big men — can get (fairly or unfairly) slapped with a “soft” label, Miller said that definitely doesn’t apply here.
“When you’re 7 feet tall, it’s like you’re going to automatically say he’s soft, he must not be physical around the basket,” Miller said. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth. When you think about being soft, where you learn toughness … How many practices has he missed? None. Games? How many games has he missed? None. Has he played through bumps and bruises? Every single time. Sometimes we have to pull him off the court.
“When the going gets tough, in big, big games, does he cower away from the moment? Or does he embrace it? He embraces it. In terms of toughness, I would say he is as tough of a freshman, mentally, physically, (as we’ve had).”