Lauri Markkanen making his mark for No. 18 Arizona
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Arizona's Lauri Markkanen has a decidedly Nordic demeanor: Serious, straightforward, understated.
The 7-foot Finnish forward has much more flash on a basketball floor, flying in for dunks, dropping in 3-pointers, slipping bounce passes to his fellow big men.
''It's almost like he has the game of a 6-foot-7 forward, he just happens to be 7-foot,'' Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
He also happens to be one of the best freshmen in the country, though maybe not the most recognizable.
While players like Kentucky's Malik Monk, UCLA's Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz of Washington get most of the freshman headlines, Markkanen has quietly proven he belongs in the conversation.
Blessed with deep shooting range and an ability to put the ball on the floor, Markkanen plays more like a shooting guard or small forward.
Play him too tight on the perimeter and Markkanen has the skill to dribble around his defender and get to the rim or pull up for a jumper. Play off and he'll drain 3-pointers all night, sometimes from well beyond the 3-point arc.
And, unlike most players his size, Markkanen is not just a spot-up shooter.
There's a fluidity to his game that allows him to knock down jumpers off screens, pull up on the move and step back to hit shots.
Markkanen leads No. 18 Arizona with 16.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He's shooting 48 percent from the floor, 43 percent from 3-point range.
His unique combination of skill and size make him a difficult match-up for opponents every night.
''If he's hitting the outside shot like that, there's not much you can do,'' Texas Southern coach Mike Davis said after Markkanen hit five 3-pointers and scored 19 points in Arizona's 85-63 home victory on Nov. 30.
Markkanen comes by his do-it-all-abilities naturally.
His father, Pekka, played a season at Kansas and professionally in Europe. When Lauri (rhymes with ow-ree) was younger, he played his father one on one in their backyard. Pekka is 6-foot-10, so little Lauri would have to figure out ways to get around or shoot over his much-bigger father.
''When you're like 4 feet tall, you have to find ways to score and that helped,'' Lauri said.
As Lauri progressed through club-team and national-team levels, he maintained his guard-like skills despite often being the tallest player on the court, playing every position on the floor.
Coming from a family of athletes also fueled his competitiveness.
Pekka played on the Finnish national team, as did Lauri's mother, Riikka. One of Lauri's brothers, Eero, is a professional soccer player and the other, Miikka, played basketball until retiring due to injuries.
''I just got better because of that,'' he said. ''I just wanted to beat them so bad, I just kept working on my game.''
Markkanen began playing on the international stage at 16 and led both the Under-16 and Under-18 European Championships in scoring before arriving at Arizona.
The international experience made the transition to the college game a fairly easy one.
Getting used to American culture took a little more time. The school work along with the demands of playing Division I basketball were a big adjustment.
So was the food.
''You eat out almost every day,'' he said. ''Back home, we just cook it for ourselves at home after practice.''
Markkanen has adjusted to the food - he's a big fan of Chipotle - for the most part and his game continues to grow as he helps the short-handed Wildcats win games.
Arizona has played all season without forward Ray Smith, who retired during the preseason after a third ACL injury, and Allonzo Trier has yet to play due to unspecified reasons. The Wildcats also have played the past six games without Parker Jackson-Cartwright due to a right ankle sprain and are down to seven scholarship players.
Markkanen has helped carry the Wildcats (11-2), teaming with fellow European big man Dusan Ristic on the inside, fellow freshmen Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons to give the Wildcats a potent threat on the outside.
''We're asking him to do everything and he just got here,'' Miller said.
So far, he's handling it all.
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