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Stiffs Prospect Watch: Lauri Markkanen

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The small-ball revolution has paved the way for big men “unicorns” - is the 7-footer from Finland the next mythical beast to make his way to the NBA?

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been 23 years since the 1994 Denver Nuggets upset the Seattle Supersonics in the playoffs, lead by the 7’2” defensive ace Dikembe Mutombo.

The Nuggets legend had his jersey retired by the team at the beginning of the season, a fitting tribute for a remarkable player. The league has changed dramatically since the days when Mutombo was blocking shots and wagging his finger. There are teams running their offense through 7-footers, big men knocking down 3-pointers from 28 feet, all while cleaning the glass and blocking shots.

NBA teams have been searching for “the next Dirk” in the draft since the German prospect joined the Dallas Mavericks in 1998. With the play of Lauri Markkanen at Arizona, those Dirk Nowitzki comparisons are starting to percolate once again.

While Markkanen reminds me more of junior-year Frank Kaminsky than the future Hall of Fame player that Nowitzki is, it is a fitting place to start the discussion on the Arizona forwards talents.

Markkanen’s offensive efficiency is astounding. Through 15 games, he’s averaging 15.8 points per game (21 percent of Arizona’s points per game mark) on 49/84/44 shooting. Markkanen has been given a green light from the perimeter from Sean Miller, and is averaging 4.67 attempts per game.

Markkanen has a release more suited more catch and shoot situations - he’s not as much of a threat off the dribble to score off a jump shot. Here you can see the value he can bring to a team off a pick and pop - a play the Nuggets can run frequently with guards like Gary Harris, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Jamal Murray. Switch the big onto the guard, and Markkanen can shoot over the smaller defender. Keep the big in the paint, and Markkanen can shoot over the late contest or drive past him to the rim.

He’s not limited to just launching jumpers though, with a strong first step and the quickness to get into the paint. He’s developing his ability to do more than just drive straight to the cup, and he can get tunnel vision when he puts the ball on the floor.

He has a back to the basket game, but his performance on these plays highlights some of the strengths and weaknesses he has at this point in his career.

Here are some clips of Markkanen against another skilled freshman with NBA aspirations, Michigan State forward Miles Bridges. Arizona is playing with one other big man, allowing Markkanen to establish deep positioning in the post. He collects the entry pass, takes a move to his left, and flips in a hook shot over the smaller Bridges. In the second clip, Bridges has pushed him out away from the rim, and he takes an awkward jumper (albeit after being fouled before the shot attempt).

Markkanen is a great offensive player, but his contributions on defense are not what is going to get him drafted. He’s had to play some small forward for Arizona as the team has dealt with injuries, but regardless he’s not much a rim protector despite his height. He has the athleticism to keep up with guards when switched out on the perimeter, but lacks the strength to battle with bigs in the paint.

He averages 7.3 rebounds per game, which is tops for the Wildcats, but can be pushed around on the defensive glass. From the games I’ve watched, he struggles to rebound in traffic, but has a good motor and chases down long rebounds. It’s encouraging to me that he isn’t afraid to mix it up - he just doesn’t have the strength to gain an advantage.

In a way, he reminds me of Domantas Sabonis defensively - he’s going to give great effort, but the physical tools are going to limit him against elite talent. Some nights he’ll be reliable, but other nights there’s the potential to get torched. As far as a pro comparison, I think he has a ceiling of a higher usage Channing Frye. Markkanen should be able to handle more responsibility on offense, but lineups when he’s on the floor will need to rely on outscoring the opponent rather than limiting them on defense.

I’m not certain on if there is a fit for Markkanen on the Nuggets. He’ll need to play next to an above average defender at center if he’s going to be a NBA power forward, and the Nuggets don’t have one of those at the moment. With his size, he could be a small-ball center, but the Nuggets might rather play Nikola Jokic, who is a far superior passer, in that role.

Markkanen is also likely to be a top-10 pick in the draft. He’s such a talented offensive player, a team is going to take a chance on him being an average defender over his career and pull the trigger on him early. With the Nuggets mudding around near the 8-seed for the playoffs, and the Grizzlies firmly established as a playoff team, it’s highly unlikely the Nuggets will have a chance to draft him.

Markkanen could be an exciting prospect for the Nuggets as a backup center, especially if the team trends towards more of an offensive juggernaut approach towards winning games, similar to the Houston Rockets. Unfortunately, teams shouldn’t be trying to draft backups with a top-10 pick, so I don’t see a fit with him and the Nuggets pending a major trade.