While certainly not the most celebrated name among the five Europeans to make the NBA All Star game, given the context of where he is now in his career there’s no doubt that Lauri Markkanen’s selection is the most important amongst players from this continent
There are many good and fun debates in European basketball right now. Who’s the best player on the planet? Giannis Antetokounmpo or Nikola Jokic. Yes, there are obviously Americans in the debate but being able to write that with a straight face is something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
When will Luka Doncic join them in this debate? When will it be ok to start talking about them in terms of the all-time greatest European player debate? Is it already soon enough?
All that is before we get to projecting Victor Wembanyama’s final destination when he, presumably, goes first in the summer’s NBA Draft. Good debates, fun debates. It’s a good time to be a fan of Euro ballers. There almost certainly has never been a time, unless you need to sleep early given the timezone situation.
Lauri Markkanen isn’t in those debates, at least not yet although he’s pretty much already locked down as Finland’s greatest ever baller. The debate around him going into this season was simple: What would he need to prove that he was the new piece the Utah Jazz wanted to keep long-term? His selection to the All Star game cements what we already thought, that he’s part of the long-term plan.
Let’s take it back to September
On 1 September, Lauri Markkanen got traded from Cleveland to Utah as part of a package deal that also included Collin Sexton, Ochai Agbaji and three first rounds picks for Donovan Mitchell. The very next day, he went out and dropped 33 points and picked up 12 rebounds for Finland in an overtime losing effort to Israel.
The trade happening right before a EuroBasket tournament with all of Finland expecting the most ever from their side was less than ideal. The last thing the Susijengi wanted was to be worried about their hero’s mental state in dealing with a trade to a side that was clearly in rebuild mode.
Turns out they had absolutely nothing to worry about as Markkaen went God mode repeatedly in the tournament, most importantly against Croatia in the round of 16 to end Finland’s long wait to reach the quarter-finals of EuroBasket. Come their exit to Spain, the eventual champions, Markkanen’s performances looked to have built the foundations of a bright future for Finnish basketball.
There was just the whole uncertainty over what was going to come next. Even in September, following the highs of EuroBasket, it looked like Markkanen’s maturity in handling the situation and thriving would make him a real asset to the Jazz. I would say nobody could see how much he would turn out to be one but, seriously, anyone who watched him over those two weeks could smell something big was coming in Salt Lake City.
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Markkamania running wild
The numbers are just fab. There’s no other way to put it. Markkanen is posting career highs in points, field goal percentage, minutes, and assists, while his rebound average is the second best he’s had across his six seasons to date in the association.
He’s also well on track to comfortably have his most appearances ever in a single season with his body holding up well despite the strain. Getting that first All Star nod and, of course, the first for a Finn is a worthy reward for Markkanen who has ensured the Jazz are far more watchable than anyone anticipated.
Utah wasn’t expected to even sniff a winning record yet right now it’s 27-26 and holding the 8th spot in the West. There is no bigger reason for that than Markkanen. He’s used to having the odds against him and having to work without the kind of roster depth of other sides, dude’s been Finland’s start player for a long time so he is more than familiar with that situation.
The Jazz would be mad to trade him and they know it
There was already a feeling in the autumn that Utah saw Markkanen as a more long-term piece than the other assets they got in the Mitchell trade but any doubt around that has clearly been removed from his performances this season. While there’s obviously a temptation to move an asset when it is particularly valuable (Markkanen is signed through his age 27 season on a deal worth less than 13 per cent of the salary cap), the Jazz really don’t have anything else in non-playing assets they need to acquire.
Markkanen taking up so small a cap hit for an All Star grade player is an obvious plus but the Jazz also hold a gaudy haul of draft picks with 13 first round picks over the next 7 NBA drafts as it stands. That’s insurance for the future, even with no 2024 picks at present. They are still in pick acquisition phase but are going to be switching that to the player side sooner or later and could well have significant cap space in the off-season and that pick haul would nicely set up Utah for sign and trades.
In Markkanen they have the type of piece that will appeal mightily both to their front office and high end talent. The front office knows it can bring in high priced talent without breaking their brains on the cap while incoming talent knows that (assuming Jordan Clarkson is also kept) they are coming into a situation that only needs a couple of big pieces to truly contend. That’s awfully appealing and keeping Markkanen would, if anything, make the moves of Mitchell and Rudy Gobert look even smarter this summer than they already seem.
Big props to Domantas
While this is primarily a focus on Markkanen, big shout out to Domantas Sabonis on making his third All Star team. Of the five Euros to make the rosters, he has probably been discussed the least but he’s been simply great with the Sacramento Kings this season and this corner is really happy for him.
It’s also great to see Paolo Banchero (Italy), Sidy Cissoko (France), Alperun Sengun (Turkey), Jeremy Sochan (Poland), and Franz Wagner (Germany) make it 5 Euros in the Rising Stars game too.