For many reasons, the 2023-24 season will be the most trying that Lauri Markkanen has had to face in his NBA career.
After coming to the Utah Jazz in the trade that sent Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Markkanen had a breakout season that saw him become an All-Star and earned him the league’s Most Improved Player award.
“I think he’s figured out that he can be a star in this league. He’s an All-Star yes, but he can do a better job even than that.” — two-time MVP and NBA champion Nikola Jokic on Lauri Markkanen
Markkanen proved that he was not only a shooting threat, as he’d been before as a role player, but that he was also more than capable with the ball in his hands and deadly working off the ball as a focal point of the offense.
He went from averaging 14.8 points per game in his last season with the Cavs to averaging 25.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
“I think he’s figured out that he can be a star in this league,” two-time MVP and NBA champion Nikola Jokic said of Markkanen. “He’s an All-Star yes, but he can do a better job even than that.”
Gaining the respect of the best players in the league is an impressive feat in its own right, but all of Markkanen’s success has also put him squarely in the crosshairs of opposing teams and players.
“Lauri knows that his life’s gonna be hard this year, in a lot of ways,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “One, he’s a marked man on the scouting report in a way that he wasn’t at the beginning of last season. Two, because there are expectations for him, there’s gonna be a different level of scrutiny. And that’s hard, and that’s going to be something that he’s going to have to adjust to.”
Additionally, Markkanen being the clear No. 1 option on the Jazz and the team’s clear best player puts him in a unique position, not only as the physical leader of this team, but the emotional leader as well.
“He’s gonna have to recognize that and understand that it’s not just about how you react to it in terms of your own play, but that the rest of the team is looking at him,” Hardy said. “How he will react in tough moments, will rub off on the rest of the team.”
Being in a leadership position is not something that comes naturally to Markkanen, who is an introvert and prefers to lead through actions rather than verbally. And often, that works just fine. He’s not the first introverted NBA player and he certainly won’t be the last.
Hardy is more than happy to have Markkanen show what it means to be the leader of the team rather than say it … most of the time. But there are times when he needs to use his voice, and Monday night’s loss against the reigning champion Denver Nuggets gave Markkanen an opportunity to step up in his role as leader of the Jazz.
In the loss, the Jazz adjusted at halftime and came out with more resolve on the defensive end. They forced the best team in the league to play their starters until the last seconds of the game, and had the game been scored only in the second half, the Jazz would have won.
The Jazz fell to 1-3 on the season, losing by just eight points to the Nuggets. That doesn’t make for a very chipper locker room following the game, and as losses mount it’s easy for morale to take a bad turn.
“Lauri is someone who’s very encouraging,” teammate Walker Kessler said following the loss to Denver. “Even after this game he was saying like, ‘Hey, I know we lost that game but if we play that hard, we’re going to win a lot of games.’ He’s just very positive.”
As far as the tactical side of things, Markkanen needs to lean into the same things that dozens of stars before him have in order to make life easier on the court. He needs to find ways to get early buckets, whether in transition, at the free-throw line or in early offense before the defense starts to hound him too much.
Those early opportunities will not only serve to set a tone but also get him into a rhythm.
“His life in the half court is going to be hard — as it is for any top player,” Hardy said. “When you’re the top priority on a scouting report, half-court scoring can be hard, but if he can get out and find a couple of easy baskets in the game, get fouled once, maybe twice in transition, I think it sets him up to have a better pathway to scoring over 20 points.”
It’s not just that Markkanen needs to score at a high level. He’s also taken steps to improve himself as a playmaker, has taken on challenges to be a better defender at multiple positions, and knows that he needs to run the floor with intense effort, if for no other reason than to take some of the attention away from himself to free up his teammates.
At the same time, Markkanen is dealing with teams being more physical than ever in the way they guard him, making it hard sometimes for him to even get the ball. It requires him to be more assertive, more aggressive and more selfish than he’s previously been.
Like Hardy said, one of the reasons this season is going to be hard for Markkanen is due to the scrutiny and expectations. He’s proven what he can do against NBA competition and that he’s more than the role player he’d been on his previous teams. Now Markkanen is expected to replicate that success. And in order for the Jazz to become a team that can eventually contend for an NBA title, he has to expand on his previous successes.
If the Jazz are going to become more than just a mediocre NBA team, much of its potential rests on Markkanen’s shoulders. So it’s time for him to show that he’s ready to carry the weight.