The Whiteboard, Utah Jazz

How the Utah Jazz helped make Lauri Markkanen a star

The Utah Jazz have helped Lauri Markkanen unlock his offensive potential, becoming the kind of star they can build a new foundation around.

On Thursday night, Lauri Markkanen dropped a career-high 49 points on the Houston Rockets, a new high-water mark in what has been a breakout season from start to finish. He has led the surprising Jazz, forcing them to reconsider dramatic rebuilding plans, averaging 24.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game, on 52.9/42.0/87.7 shooting splits.

Some fans may have given up on ever seeing a leap like this from Markkanen but this emergence is more than just individual development. He has undoubtedly improved in a number of areas but the Jazz have also been incredibly savvy about putting him in positions to succeed.

What are the Utah Jazz doing differently with Lauri Markkanen?

Markkanen was often relegated to a static spot-up shooter in Cleveland’s offense, and spot-ups made up nearly 40 percent of his possessions. This season, that number has dropped to 22.3 percent. He’s been still been ultra-efficient on spot-ups in part because he’s been more aggressive about attacking closeouts.

Markkanen still doesn’t create a ton of offense for himself off the dribble but he’s averaging 4.6 drives per 36 minutes (nearly twice what he averaged last season in Cleveland) and he’s shooting 56.1 percent on drives.

But mostly, Utah has created a lot more opportunities for Markkanen to move around the floor, rather than just hovering in the corner waiting for the ball to be swung to him. Last season in Cleveland, 15.8 percent of his offensive possessions came off cuts, dribble-handoffs, off-ball screens or as the screener in the pick-and-roll. This season, that’s jumped to 26.2 percent and he ranks in the 69th percentile or better in scoring efficiency in all three play types.

Things like simple pin-downs get him out of the corner, in motion, and put him in advantageous scoring situations against defenses that are already playing catch-up.

His combination of 3-point shooting and size is the most viscerally appealing part of his game but Markkanen’s shooting touch is just as useful inside the arc and these kinds of actions let him leverage that in far more places on the floor. Two-point attempts are making up more than half his shot attempts for the first time since his second season in Chicago and his improved field goal percentage from 16 feet-and-in is the biggest change to his shooting profile this year.

Markkanen has gotten stronger over the past couple of years and his ability to take a hit and finish over the top of the defense with his length is better than ever (also, notice that this is almost the exact same simple pin-down as above).

He has also leveraged that strength to get better and more strategic and attacking mismatches in isolation (averaging about one per game and ranking in the 97th percentile in scoring efficiency).

Markkanen is not quite an individual offensive engine in the frontcourt like Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Simply throwing the ball to him and asking him to get a bucket a dozen times a game isn’t going to be a recipe for success for the Jazz. But by getting him on the move and putting him in a greater variety of scoring situations, Utah has helped him be much more than the static, floor-spacing big he had been the past few seasons. To be clear, he’s gotten better but the structure the Jazz have built around him has helped unlock his full potential.

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  • On whether the league has a problem with the regular season: “I don’t think there’s an issue at all. I think the game is in a good place.”
  • On the idea of a mid-season tournament: “I don’t hate it, I don’t like it. It is what it is. It doesn’t affect the season.”

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