Lauri Markkanen motivated to face Bulls amid NBA All-Star push

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Markkanen motivated to face Bulls amid All-Star push originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Seemingly everywhere you turned Saturday morning, a Utah Jazz player or staff member sported a “The Finnisher” sweatshirt as the franchise’s All-Star push for Lauri Markkanen is in full swing.

“Gotta give a shoutout to (Jazz rookie) Walker Kessler, my manager. He’s doing a great job of handing those out for the team and staff and it’s been fun seeing guys wearing them around,” Markkanen said, smiling, in an on-camera interview with NBC Sports Chicago following the team’s morning shootaround at the United Center. “My teammates having the belief in me the same way I trust my teammates, it’s been great.”

Plenty has been great this season for Markkanen, who played four seasons for the Chicago Bulls and now is making his biggest push to represent his hometown Jazz when Utah hosts the 2023 NBA All-Star game in February by his play on the court.

Markkanen, who is coming off a career-high 49-point night in Utah’s victory over Houston on Thursday, is averaging career-highs in several categories. They include 24.5 points per game, 52.9 percent shooting, 42 percent 3-point shooting (on 7.3 attempts per game), 5.3 free-throw attempts, 87.7 percent free-throw shooting and 1.9 assists.

Markkanen’s true shooting percentage of .673 also is a career-best and ranks eighth in the league, just behind Kevin Durant. Two players in the league are averaging at least 20 points while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range — Markkanen and Steph Curry.

No wonder 16-year veteran Mike Conley Jr. answered “I don’t know” when asked what Markkanen’s ceiling is.

“Every month, it seems to get higher and higher. So I don’t want to say something super outlandish. But he’s one of the more talented players in our league,” Conley Jr. said. “I think the more opportunity he gets as being The Guy and the more he learns how to navigate that, it can push him up another notch into a level of guys who are the premier guys in the league.”

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Markkanen fielded the same question. He also said “I don’t know” to begin his answer.

“I think I still have a lot to work on. I can still get a lot better,” Markkanen said. “Just seeing different kind of defenses now and every game, I think I see them better and (the game) kind of slowing down. I think I can get a lot better reading the defense and making the right plays.”

Much has been made of first-year coach Will Hardy’s offensive system unlocking Markkanen’s potential. The equal-opportunity attack puts Markkanen on the move more often than not and allows him to score within the context of the offense.

That’s crucial for a player who possess a team-first attitude and still developing his ability to create shots for himself.

“It’s done a lot,” Markkanen said of Hardy’s system. “I think just the system and the guys we have on this team, we’re on the same page. The stuff we run, getting me on the move rather than just stand still isolation or just spot-ups, we’re moving a lot in our offense with off-ball screens and stuff like that. That’s been good for us.”

Having a true point guard like Conley Jr. helps too.

“Mike has been really good. He’s a big part of what we’re doing,” Markkanen said. “Just putting the guys in the right spots, getting us organized, delivering the passes on target. Obviously, he can make a couple shots too.”

Conley Jr. said Markkanen is still growing into a mindset of being the team’s leading scorer.

“His versatility is what stands out the most,” Conley Jr. said. “Getting to know him this first half of the year, it’s been unbelievable to see the many ways he can affect the game. Sometimes he sits on the perimeter as a perimeter spacer and he’s knocking down 3s. Other times, he’s taking it full coast to coast and going up against big and small guys. There’s literally nobody he can’t get to work on.

“It’s just really about seeing his development as far as his mentality and being aggressive and understanding I’m going to give him the ball. Go do what you do. He has taken that full speed and been really good with it.”

So much of the NBA is about fit and opportunity. At 25 and on his third team, Markkanen has seemingly found his home in one of those trades — Utah sent out Donovan Mitchell to acquire him in a multi-player deal with Cleveland — that has benefitted both franchises.

“I think I’m a better player than I was a couple years ago when I was here and I’m just getting more mature. And then being in the right system utilizes my strengths,” Markkanen said. “Being on the move is getting me to my right spots. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to do this stuff earlier on.”

Markkanen has played at the United Center as a visitor one time before, almost exactly a year ago. He scored 28 points in the Cavaliers’ loss here on Jan. 19, 2022. He called returning to play here both “weird” and “fun.”

And as he did last season, he leaned into — rather than downplaying — what it’s like to face his former franchise.

“Of course, it’s always extra motivation to come here,” he said. “But we’re locked in, trying to get this win no matter what it takes.”

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