Thousands of miles from his native Finland, Lauri Markkanen feels at home in Arizona

Wednesday February 22nd, 2017

Jyväskylä is the largest city in central Finland, featuring a landscape flush with forests and hills and some 328 lakes, and you start there to understand how a kid from Scandanavia finds himself at home in the Arizona desert. Like most children with affection for the game, Lauri Markkanen shot day after day on a basketball rim in his backyard. Unlike most of those children, he’d do so even when the temperatures dipped to 20-below (Celsius, of course), putting on a beanie and gloves and continuing to work on his dribbling. His father and mother eventually established a rule: No basketball before 7 a.m. or after 10 p.m. The neighbors didn’t mind the noise, actually. But it was probably the only way to coax their youngest son inside.

Lauri was an assiduous addict, too. When he was about 10 or 11 years old, he kept a diary for one of his youth teams. In it, he logged how many hours he practiced his shot. The coach happened to keep the diary and unearthed it recently, relaying its contents to the boy’s father, Pekka: In the journal, Lauri Markkanen wrote that he’d been shooting for four and a half hours . . . per day. “Not per week,” Pekka Markkanen says. “Per day.”

Now more than 5,000 miles away from a place known for long days and nights, in an arid sector of the southwestern United States, Lauri Markkanen nevertheless feels like he’s on familiar ground. He has perfected a Chipotle order. At In-N-Out Burger, he knows one must request the burger and fries done Animal Style. He plays Call of Duty, does impressions of movie stars and records trick shots after practice. Most consequentially, the 7-foot, 230-pound freshman with the lustrous shooting stroke has carried fourth-ranked Arizona into national championship contention in part by, once again, working later than anyone else. As long as he can find the floor, it seems, Lauri Markkanen will make himself at home.

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“He’s kind of like a quiet guy—he’s more focused on basketball than anything else,” Arizona junior forward Dusan Ristic says. “When I’m with him in the same room, I’m not worried about, is he going to talk to somebody else or listen to loud music or watch loud TV. He’s all focused about basketball. That’s what we like about Lauri.”

The list hardly ends there. The Wildcats are 25–3 as they welcome the Pac-12’s two Los Angeles schools to Tucson this weekend. A high-profile rematch against No. 5 UCLA on Saturday—Arizona won by 11 at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 21—will draw national attention. Arguably none of the above would be reality without Markkanen dragging the program through the absence of sophomore standout guard Allonzo Trier for the first 19 games of the season. Markkanen averages 15.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game while firing at a 49.8% clip overall and 45.7% from three-point range. His offensive rating (135.2) is fourth nationally among players who use at least 20% of their team’s possessions. His Win Shares total (5.4) is tied for 10th in the country, a spot shared with Player of the Year contenders like Kansas’s Frank Mason and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. As recently as Feb. 3, when Trier was just four games into his return, Markkanen’s Win Shares total remained among the country’s top five.

Without him, Arizona might be an also-ran. Instead the Wildcats are largely a Finnished product. “Our record is what it is because of our entire team, but to me he’s a once-in-a-generation player,” Wildcats assistant coach Joe Pasternack says. “I’m not sure there’s a guy at his size that’s ever been that versatile offensively as a freshman in college basketball—his ability to drive the ball, shoot threes, post up, make free throws. And rebound. There are a lot of face-up 7-footers maybe. But he’s getting seven and a half, eight rebounds a game. His toughness and his ability to hit big shots have carried us throughout the year.”


Lehtikuva via AP

For Lauri Markkanen, basketball was never a foreign concept. Pekka Markkanen was a 6' 10" forward for Kansas in 1989–90, averaging 6.9 points and 3.9 rebounds in one season before he returned to Europe, eventually playing for Finland’s national team and professional clubs across the continent. Lauri’s mother, Rikka, likewise had a hoops career and competed briefly with the Finnish national team. Older brothers Eero (soccer) and Miikka (basketball) also ascended to the professional ranks in their respective pursuits.

Competitiveness came naturally. Pekka and Lauri regularly teamed up against Eero and Miikka for two-on-two soccer and basketball showdowns. But Lauri craved to be his siblings’ equal in any venue. When he and his brothers ate together—be it dinner or ice cream or candies—Lauri insisted upon having exactly as much food as they did. “My older brothers are what, six and four years older than me,” Lauri says. “That was a normal amount for them. I wasn’t even close to finishing it.”

Pekka maintains he and Rikka allowed their sons to follow their own athletic passions. “We just tried to give those boys the chance to try any sport they wanted to do,” Pekka says. “We can eat spaghetti and not so expensive steaks, but we wanted to make sure those guys cannot say when they are adults that they didn’t get a chance to try ice hockey or something else.” And Lauri did try. He was about 12 or 13 when he capped a hockey season with the following fateful question: Dad, how tall are ice hockey players? So that became a hobby. Two or three years later, Lauri notched a hat trick in a summer soccer match. Pekka was certain his son would continue with the sport after that result. Instead, following that effort, Lauri effectively quit on the spot. Pekka was incredulous, but Lauri wanted to devote himself to hoops. “I think he made the right decision,” Pekka says.

No, basketball was always paramount, as evidenced by Lauri toiling away at all hours and all climates. “I just loved it,” he says. Summer vacations were limited because Lauri complained if he missed a practice. While Pekka was involved, he never assumed the role of coach, serving instead as a sort of team organizer for Lauri’s youth squads, taking care of grunt work like scheduling officials for games. If anything, Pekka encouraged his son to rest more. Lauri instead opted for intense self-improvement. Take, for example, the unusually fluid shooting form in this 7-footer. “I have to be a little bit selfish and give credit to myself,” Lauri says. “The actual amount, the work I put in—it’s like, I can’t even tell you how many hours I put in on a daily basis to work on my shot. Of course I give a lot of credit to my mom, dad, all the coaches that tried to help me with my technique. But I have to give credit to myself, too.”

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Markkanen eventually matriculated three hours south to Helsinki Academy for the equivalent of his sophomore through senior years. The move checked off several boxes. Markkanen would grow accustomed to living away from home before he’d make a more sizeable leap to an American college. The school’s manageable schedule—it played only once or twice a week—allowed for practice time and for maintaining good academic standing. And one of the academy’s coaches was Hanno Mottola, a forward for Utah from 1996 to 2000 who then logged three seasons with the Atlanta Hawks before finishing his career with a decade in Europe. Mottola served as the Markkanen’s primary conduit to American college coaches, making connections and taking calls from a growing group of suitors.

After hearing about Markkanen through various international connections, Pasternack contacted Mottola in the summer of 2015. Mottola sent along some clips, and the Arizona staff dug up video on Markkanen via Synergy Sports. “When we watched him on film,” Pasternack says, “he looked like a 6' 6" three man running off stagger screens, catching the ball in the post and shooting fadeaways, driving the ball. We thought his skill level was incredible.”

Thus began a long-distance relationship. Using Facetime and WhatsApp to communicate over Internet connections—“I can’t imagine what the bill would’ve been if I was using a cell phone,” Pasternack says—Arizona stayed in weekly contact with the Markkanens. But securing Lauri’s services required more than decent broadband. For their one shot at a home visit, Miller and Pasternack boarded a flight bound for Helsinki in September 2015 . . . only to be returned to New York’s John F. Kennedy airport after the plane lost a generator 45 minutes into the trip. The next flight didn’t lift off for 24 hours and only had one seat free. Miller secured it, arriving travel-weary but prepared with a Power Point presentation for his recruit. There was just one problem: He couldn’t open the file on his laptop. Arizona ultimately had to email Lauri Markkanen his own recruiting pitch, so he could open the attachment on his computer.

Perhaps providentially, Lauri only recalls the visit fondly, especially the dinner at a downtown Helsinki restaurant. “I remember that we ate reindeer and mashed potatoes and cranberries,” Lauri says, “and that it was extremely good.”

In October, the Markkanens visited the U.S. for a trio of college tours. Arizona had asked for, and secured, the final visit. This was lucky, too: Lauri was set to commit to Utah after the first stop, but Pekka encouraged him to hold off until he explored North Carolina and Arizona. The Markkanens had planned to take the visits and return to Finland to calculate a college decision. But after a night of eating with the coaching staff at Vivaci, a local Italian spot, and then playing pool at Miller’s house, Pekka and Lauri joined the coaches for breakfast before that season’s Blue-Red Scrimmage. Solemnly, Pekka announced his son had important news. Lauri then turned to Miller, Pasternack and the others, stone-faced.

“I would like to be a Wildcat, if it is O.K. with you,” he declared.

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Arizona’s coaches were pleasantly dazed, but it was a reminder of their prized recruit’s practicality: Lauri’s world revolves around basketball. Arizona would graduate most of it post players the next spring. Which meant Lauri could play a lot of basketball at Arizona. As his father told him: They weren’t thinking about feelings anymore. They were thinking about facts. “Other schools had a couple power forwards or something, like older guys who were probably playing more,” he says. “All the [Arizona] big guys were leaving. So it opened a spot for me.”

Pekka offered one other morsel of advice on playing college basketball far from home: Keep your feet on the ground. It was fine counsel, but far from necessary. “I knew it was going to be serious, but it’s even more serious than I thought,” Lauri Markkanen says. “But I like it when it’s serious.”

Pekka Markkanen half-jokingly laments he has to beg his son to talk about anything but basketball. Arizona, meanwhile benefits from first-year player with an uncommonly rapt attention to detail. “His preparation for a game is like a senior preparing for the national championship,” Pasternack says. “During the game: Who am I guarding? How am I defending the ball screen? He respects the game, is probably the best way to put it. Like an NBA player would.”

Buoyed by that, and well aware of the void created by Trier’s absence following a positive PED test, Markkanen tallied double-figures in 21 of Arizona’s first 22 games. “Of course when we were playing with seven players,” Markkanen says, “you need players to do more.” February began cruelly; he was a single-digit scorer in the Wildcats’ first four outings of the month. A bout with the flu on the team’s swing through Oregon at least partly explains why Markkanen missed 10 of a mere 12 shots taken across those two outings. But the sickly efforts may be behind him: Last week, Markkanen hit for 19 points and 11 rebounds against Washington State and then compiled 26 points and 13 boards against Washington. He shot 53.3% combined in those games, a welcome return to form ahead of a visit from the blistering Bruins. “I’ve seen a lot of good shooters, 7-footers from Europe, but I’ve never seen anyone like Lauri,” Ristic says. “I’ve never seen someone shooting at the constant level like Lauri does. He’s probably one of the best—not just big man shooters, but overall shooters—that I’ve seen in my life.”


Chris Coduto/Getty

Were it not for the passport and the accent, one might have a difficult time distinguishing Arizona’s big man from a stock version of the American teenage basketball standout. He is a sneaker fanatic. He converses fluently about movies, and he apparently does a terrific Borat impression. (“Almost excellent,” Ristic testifies.) Markkanen’s trick-shot videos have earned some renown, too, including one eye-catching effort from January in which he stood behind the basket, heaved the ball high in the air and over everything, putting enough backspin on the toss that the ball bounced backwards and into the net. (“It wasn’t my first try,” Markkanen concedes.) And after he’s done with basketball for the day, he gets his video game fix in. “Some say maybe too much time with that,” Markkanen says.

It won’t be enough to sidetrack what could be a one-year relocation. One NBA front-office talent evaluator says Markkanen “for sure” should be a top 10 pick. “His ability to shoot is what’s going to get him in this league,” the evaluator says. It’s ironic that Markkanen mostly eschewed the NBA until the last couple of years, as the time difference would’ve required him to rise before dawn to watch games; the mindfulness that had him ignoring the league will help vault him into it.

His diligence helps to minimize variables, even those that pop up thousands of miles from home. “Of course it’s tough to leave friends and family,” Markkanen says. “It was just new for me. There was a lot of things I had to get used to, but I wasn’t nervous or scared or anything. I just wanted to play basketball. I’m that kind of person that I could live anywhere in the whole world if I have good people around me.”

Just once, in fact, did Markkanen feel uneasy about his semesters abroad. He knew a dunk contest was part of Arizona’s Red-Blue scrimmage festivities in October. But he only choreographed his jam after a shootaround maybe two hours before the event: A lob toward the rim, a one-hand catch off the bounce and a reverse jam. The first time he tried it, he made it. That was good enough. He decided to go with the dunk when it was his turn, which he assumed were determined by seniority.

He assumed incorrectly. Markkanen was first up, called out before a throaty crowd of 14,644 at the McKale Center. “The announcer was like, now up, the kid from Finland,” Markkanen says. “I just heard my number: ‘Oh, it’s my time?’” The surprise made him atypically anxious. But he threw the lob, caught the bounce, and flushed the dunk. Then he wasn’t so nervous. Once the show was over, he could turn his attention to long days and nights ahead and taking the lead on everything else. Lauri Markkanen was thousands of miles from Jyväskylä. It was like he never left.

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