How family and international play have been the guiding forces of Lauri Markkanen’s NBA resurgence

It was a clash of past and present, when Lauri Markkanen launched himself from the dotted line and met Rudy Gobert high above the Target Center floor. His right arm cracked atop Gobert’s frosted head. Markkanen ripped on the iron and the whole basket shook. All this commotion, all while the fresh shockwaves from Utah’s sweeping offseason — bidding goodbye not only to Gobert, but All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell as well — and landing the Finnish forward as a member of the very much rebuilding Jazz, still hadn’t fully settled.

So with the youngest coach in the league in first-year head man Will Hardy overseeing a blistering 4-1 start, replete with a 132-126 victory over Minnesota in the second game of this young season, these upstart Jazz are playing quite an intriguing tune. Any rewards of the draft lottery will have to wait a moment, because Jordan Clarkson is starting and sizzling, Kelly Olynyk can’t miss, and Markkanen is fiddling front and center, rocking rims and draining midrange fallaways with equal ease. He has operated at both spectrums of the pick-and-roll, defended wings and bigs alike, averaging 22 points, 8.8 rebounds and three assists along the way.

He’s rumbling the ball forward every transition opportunity he sees. That precious orange keeps finding his hands when games have hung in the balance. Isolated above the key, with a lone defender in his path, it’s as if Markkanen is still wearing the cape he donned leading Finland to the quarterfinals of this summer’s Eurobasket competition, only falling to eventual champion Spain.

“I think having that experience this summer, coming in confident, I think I showed, yes, to you guys, but even to myself, that I can do all that stuff,” Markkanen told Yahoo Sports. “I was the guy this summer. And carrying that over [to Utah], we’ve got a lineup where everybody can do a little bit of everything. But mind-set wise, I’m trying to have that same approach.”

Summer FIBA commitments have always been a tricky subject to navigate. From an NBA team’s perspective, any exhibition play presents obvious injury risk. Just ask Boston and Danilo Gallinari, who tore his ACL suiting up for Italy not two months after signing a two-year, $13.3 million deal with the Celtics.

Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) dribbles down the court during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)
Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen is averaging 22 points, 8.8 rebounds and three assists this season. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

But real gameplay — compared to one-on-zero workouts or open run scrimmages — in a single-elimination tournament with a nation at your back seems quite capable of springboarding stronger NBA campaigns. It can sustain midseason conditioning and retain a player’s rhythm.

Orlando swingman Franz Wagner has carried his greater playmaking duties with Germany into the Magic’s offense this fall. Wagner’s fellow countryman, Dennis Schroder, parlayed his strong Eurobasket play into a contract with the Lakers. Wizards staffers have said youngster Deni Avdija, whose defensive effectiveness has outpaced his offensive production, gained valuable reps in a larger creating role for Israel despite suffering a groin injury that limited him during the preseason.

Pelicans reserve Willy Hernangomez found added perspective amid Spain’s route to the Eurobasket crown. His window had finally arrived, with the frontcourt mantle being passed from Pau Gasol and then brother Marc Gasol, and the center rekindled a boyish joy for the sport altogether. “I found that passion. The key [now] is to play that way when you don’t have minutes [in the NBA],” Hernangomez told Yahoo Sports. “When you have five or 10 [minutes], it can be difficult. When you have 25 that I did in the national team, you know you are able to do all your stuff.”

The business of the NBA

The very night before tournament play began, 14 hours before Finland’s opening game against Avdija and Israel, a Twitter notification interrupted the fierce battle of Call of Duty waging inside Markkanen’s hotel room. Through headsets, he and his roommate, Elias Valtonen, a guard for the club Spanish BAXI Manresa, were armed against a pair of Finnish teammates down the hall. Until the trigger sticks froze in their fingers, and the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired Mitchell from the Jazz.

What Markkanen said next left his lips as a joke. “Oh, I wonder … am I a part of this?” But then the words hung there, the paused video game hovering in the background, the silence flooding his earpiece. And before reality could fully fill that space, not even a full minute having passed, Markkanen’s phone rattled once more. The name of a particularly important contact flashed on his screen: Koby Altman, the Cavaliers’ president of basketball operations, who indeed made Markkanen part of the late-summer blockbuster that shocked personnel across the league.

An unfamiliar number from the United States, what turned out to be a FaceTime request from Hardy, pinged Markkanen’s cell next. Although it wouldn’t have mattered who was dialing in, not Jazz CEO Danny Ainge, not James Naismith himself. Markkanen couldn’t have shown his face. He ignored the call. Emotion swarmed everything in its path. Another author, with his own pen, had closed this chapter of his story. The door on his family’s time in Cleveland had slammed shut and bruised his soul for one long night.

“How clearly I remember that, unexpectedly being traded, I’m sure I’m going to remember that for the rest of my life,” Markkanen said.

Sleep was a distant concept from another dimension. Soon enough, Markkanen found himself walking the streets of Prague with the Finnish team trainer, a world away from the logistical mess needing to be cleaned back in the NBA. Weaving under the moon and throughout the old city, Markkanen pieced himself together. It was only five years earlier, in the summer of 2017, when Markkanen used Eurobasket play as a launching pad into his rookie season.

Bulls coaches marveled then at the film of their prized rookie freelancing for Finland, a 20-year-old playing with a country on his shoulders, scoring 19.5 points with dazzling efficiency over 27 minutes per game. “That’s when we got really excited,” former Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Because he’s a 7-footer that can shoot it, can dribble it. You just don’t have a lot of those guys with that type of athleticism.”

Hoiberg’s staff didn’t evaluate Markkanen prior to his draft night arrival. Chicago once held the 16th pick that June, while the Timberwolves were prepared to select Markkanen with the seventh selection. And yet the desire to reunite All-Star Jimmy Butler with his former Bulls coach, Tom Thibodeau, proved all too tantalizing for Minnesota. Even a year earlier, two months into Thibdodeau’s tenure, the Wolves nearly traded their fifth pick in the 2016 draft, Kris Dunn, and a similar package with Zach LaVine, for Butler.

So Chicago dispatched Jim Boylen across the ocean, where upon landing, a five-hour train ride still separated the then-Bulls assistant from Markkanen’s hometown of Vantaa. There, they flung frisbees throughout a wooded disc golf course, enjoying the fastest growing sport in Finland. One day, they rented a sauna houseboat, a woodfired dry room chugged into the middle of a lake, where the coach joined the phenom and his wife, Verna, plunging into the cold, natural water in between sweats in their swimsuits. “That’s why those people live forever,” Boylen says.

Markkanen thrived under Hoiberg, starting 68 games en route to an All-Rookie first-team selection, where Chicago tried to create long closeouts for defenders, teeing Markkanen to either shoot the three or attack his charging foe toward the basket. He had the same freedom from the national team to grab rebounds and run. When the calendar flipped, he was torching the Knicks for 33 points, splashing eight triples, dribbling past the entirety of New York’s transition defense one third-quarter possession, and thundering a hammer onto Enes Kanter’s noggin. “He dunked on their whole team,” Hoiberg said.

The coach and his wife hosted the Markkanens for occasional dinners, welcoming newlyweds far from home for a home-cooked meal. This was no prodigy being seduced by temptations that come with a life in the league. By the end of January, Markkanen rushed Verna to the hospital, when son Alvar took his first breath as the Bulls departed for a three-game road trip. Markkanen watched Chicago play the Trail Blazers and Clippers from his wife’s bedside. “He’s very much a family man,” Hoiberg says. “You could just see the joy in his eyes when he had the baby.”

Markkanen attempted to rejoin the Bulls in Sacramento, but a Midwest blizzard kept him grounded at the airport and opened another night with his newborn child. “When we had our kids, the game meant even more,” he said. “I try to represent Finland as well as I can. I try to represent my parents as well as I can. But when you have your own family, you have something even more to be playing for.”

He found shelter at home, especially when his Bulls family fractured just 20 games into Markkanen’s second season. Chicago dismissed Hoiberg after a 5-19 start and named Boylen the interim coach. By Markkanen’s third year, the 2019-20 campaign, his touches and scoring plummeted, often finding himself in perimeter dribble handoffs as opposed to larger playmaking positions. Bulls staffers could all sense the seismic shift happening beneath their feet, restructuring the building blocks of a franchise around LaVine’s bouncy ceiling. And between those painted lines, they could feel Marrkanen’s confidence begin to wane. A new front office, and a third head coach in Billy Donovan, plus a third offensive system, arrived for the 2020-21 year and left Markkanen even further aside.

His second child, Elsa, arrived in October 2020. Markkanen has reveled in the serenity of fatherhood. His wife and kids don’t offer more voices in his ear, where endless figures can whisper demands and suggestions. Where one misstep inside the NBA web can tangle the very players trying to spin their own. “It’s a helpful thing for myself, to enjoy basketball at the facility, and then I can shift my focus at home and have a good time with the wife and kids,” Markkanen said.

“There’s basketball Lauri, and then there’s family Lauri,” emphasized one Chicago staffer.

The quest for permanent roots

He built an even stronger foundation in Northeast Ohio with the Cavaliers. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s experimental three-big lineup put Markkanen back in a perimeter-oriented place. In trial by combat, he was tasked with guarding opponents’ most dangerous wings. And with the safety net of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley as a comfort, Markkanen flashed a surprising feistiness guarding beyond the arc, shuffling his feet in space. Cleveland won, in the beginning, and he and Verna bought a home. They felt fortunate to find optimal schooling for the two littles ones.

So as his phone vibrated in that Prague hotel room, each ringtone felt like a visceral pulse, new roots the Markkanens had planted being ripped from the dirt. It will take far longer to reestablish that base once again, before his family can fully bloom in lockstep with his game. “Knowing what kind of big move it would be for our lives,” Markkanen said, “that was what was emotional.”

But the long night ended. Markkanen somehow managed 33 points against Israel that next afternoon, before powering Finland to a seventh-place tournament finish overall. Their Eurobasket run lasted until Sept. 13, roughly two weeks before training camp began.

The Markkanens have found temporary residence in connecting hotel rooms in Salt Lake City, still awaiting to relocate into a new home. One side contains a kitchenette and laundry room, the other can morph into a sacred space for Markkanen’s pregame nap. They are living out of suitcases, their wardrobe scattered across the map. “If you guys pay attention,” he said, “I’m wearing a lot of team gear, because I don’t have a lot of my clothes.”

Jazz officials have indicated Markkanen is part of Utah’s future plans. While the front office engages rival inquiries on a host of veteran talent — Clarkson and Olynyk, Mike Conley and Malik Beasley — Markkanen may be wearing Jazz apparel for some time. He has the agency and space to prolong his national team prowess, but also a vacuum of team expectations, to play freer than his NBA career has ever permitted before.

And whether chicken or egg, Markkanen will return to FIBA play next August for the World Cup, another chance to calibrate his rhythm ahead of the NBA season, this time, perhaps, with Victor Wembanyama set to flank him on Utah’s wing. There will be another championship at stake, another chance to stamp Finland’s foothold in the global basketball hierarchy.

“Everybody acknowledged that we got a big summer ahead of us. Everybody needs to get better as a player and go from there,” Markkanen said. “It’s an obvious thing, but it’s hard to explain. You know that the whole country is behind you. Especially now with the world situation that’s going on, even last year when the Russia-Ukraine thing started. Just playing every game and just thinking that we’re in a fortunate situation to represent Finland, especially when we played Ukraine this summer. … It's an emotional thing. It really is.”

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