Lauri Markkanen enrolled at Arizona as a highly touted pro prospect after impressive appearances in FIBA junior events for four straight years, and I think it’s fair to say the seven-foot gunner from Finland met expectations.
His rebounding didn’t translate against collegiate competition, but his shooting turned out to be even better than expected and he posted one of the most remarkable shooting seasons in NCAA history.
Despite taking 74.7% of his shots away from the basket , Markkanen averaged 1.53 points per shot and Arizona averaged 134.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, 15th best in the country , which made him indispensable to what turned out to be a legit title contender.
Arizona won 32 out of 37 games, won a share of the PAC 12 outright, won the PAC 12 tournament and lost to Xavier by a possession in the Sweet Sixteen. Markkanen led the team in minutes and was the driving force behind the 16th-ranked offense in adjusted offensive efficiency , despite his unimpressive 22.8% usage rate, because he is one of those players who can make an impact without touching the ball.
Given his stature, it’s enticing to think of Markkanen as an eventual full time center, providing the sort of spacing that should stretch any defense to its breaking point, but he is a poor defender at this point of his development and seems far from becoming the sort of big man who can be trusted with directing traffic, calling coverages and acting as the last line of defense.
Arizona managed to build a top 30 defense in spite of him, though. It successfully hid him by pairing him up with a prototype center for just about every minute he was on the floor. It was rare to see opponents putting him in pick-and-roll defense constantly to try exposing him in space, which will be a lot more challenging in the pros.
Markkanen took 43.4% of his shots from beyond the arc last season, at a pace of 5.7 attempts per 40 minutes, which is an impressive figure when you consider he is a true seven-footer. Luke Kornet is the only true big man in Draft Express’ top 100 to average more three-point shots per 40 minutes.
Markkanen nailed 42.3% of his 163 three-point attempts, showcasing pure mechanics without wasted motion and a quick release, though perhaps more impressive than his percentages and the way he looks shooting the ball is the type of shots he takes, as he’s not just a mere spot-up threat.
He’s proven himself capable of taking long bombs out of the pick-and-pop, averaging 1.22 points per possession in these instances  and stressing the defense at the point of attack. The opponent faces a decision between containing the ball handler and giving a sick shooter a look he can make or sticking to Markkanen and allowing the dribble driver a path to the lane or bringing a third defender in and being forced to scramble. Regardless of the option, he can disrupt the integrity of a scheme that is resistant to switching (more on his play against switching later).
And even when the opponent successfully runs him off his shot, Markkanen has shown the ability to pump fake, take a couple of escape dribbles and set himself up for a pull-up that most defenders struggle to contest because of the high point in his release, as he nailed 42.4% of his 118 two-point jumpers last season.
Aside from that, Markkanen has impressed with his ability to come off screens, forcing opposing defenders to chase in a way they are not accustomed to, and even flashed some ability to take pull-ups in side pick-and-roll, though it’s questionable how effective that play would be if it were used more often and opponents started pressuring his handle.
Other Areas Of Offense
Part of the problem is Markkanen doesn’t have a good enough handle and the shiftiness to go side-to-side, which was made evident in the few instances he needed to create a shot for himself in isolation. He also doesn’t have the speed to just blow by his defender, a similarly-sized big man.
Markkanen did manage to put some pressure at the rim attacking closeouts, as he’s proven himself coordinated enough to pump fake and take it from the top of the key all the way to the goal on straight line drives, as he’s taken a quarter of his shots at the basket and averaged 5.8 foul shots per 40 minutes  – marks that aren’t remarkable but are quite decent when you consider the role he played as a floor spacer.
Markkanen hasn’t shown any explosiveness elevating off one foot to go up strong in traffic or the ability to hang in the air and adjust his body to finish around rim protectors but he has showcased an arsenal of flip shots and underhanded tosses to score over defenders in the front of the basket – converting his 95 attempts at the rim at a 69.5% clip, with half of his makes unassisted.
He did not dive to the basket a whole lot in pick-and-roll but has never shown the sort of hops that suggests he can play above the rim as a target for lobs elevating in a crowd, though he’s shown he can get up for some alley oops sneaking behind the defense. But that doesn’t happen often because Markkanen has also not shown to be a particularly instinctive cutter.
In addition, he hasn’t flashed any instincts as a passer and isn’t an asset to help facilitate offense from the elbows or kicking out to shooters out of the short roll at this point of his development – assisting on just 5.6% of Arizona’s scores when he was on the floor.
A pleasant surprise is the fact he collected 10% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor, considering he played away from the basket for the most part and the fact he doesn’t have the length to rebound outside his area when he does crash the offensive glass. That’s not expected to translate to the next level, though, because Markkanen just doesn’t play with a lot of energy.
But the biggest concern on offense about his pro prospects regards his ability to burn switches. He hasn’t yet developed a robust enough post game to punish opponents when they exchange a smaller player onto him and that’s a big problem. The striking part is how much he struggles to establish good enough position. Despite his 225-pound frame, Markkanen is not very physical.
If the opponent can guard him with a six-foot-three player without any consequence, then it can limit the impact of his outside shooting; closing out to him faster, navigating screens better and getting into his air space more easily.
Hidden within a well-structured system, surrounded by plus defenders, Markkanen can be okay on the other end. He can move his feet and has some lateral mobility to stay in front of bigger types defending one-on-one. His closeouts are only so-so, as he doesn’t have the speed to run shooters off their spot often, but he at least consistently puts in the effort to contest jumpers.
But when something more is required off him, Markkanen has disappointed.
He is an iffy help defender at this point of his development, rarely putting himself in position to challenge shots at the basket and lacking the length or the helps to act as a shot blocking threat when he did manage to rotate to the rim in time – collecting just 19 blocks in his 37 appearances in college.
In other areas of interior defense, Markkanen hasn’t shown a lot of toughness. In the game against Cal, Arizona doubled immediately whenever Ivan Rabb (not exactly known for his power moves) caught the ball against him in the low post.
He is attentive to his boxout responsibilities but doesn’t get very physical and lacks the standing the reach and leaping ability to rebound in traffic, collecting just 17.5% of opponents’ misses when he’s been on the floor – which is a disappointing mark for someone his size.
But how the pros will attack him the most in the immediate future is in the pick-and-roll. While he is nimble enough to guard big men who face-up against him, Markkanen is not agile enough to pick up smaller players on switches out on an island and hasn’t looked particularly comfortable guarding above the foul line.