- Lauri Markkanen is a high-profile big man with defensive issues. But while he struggles on that end, he can shoot his way to forgiveness.
A draft-relevant possession, from the Sweet 16, that will stay in my head for nearly two months: Tie game, 71–71, with 50.4 seconds left in the West Regional semifinal between No. 2 Arizona and No. 10 Xavier. The Musketeers bring the ball upcourt, looking for a quick-hitting bucket that could set up a two-for-one before the buzzer.
The most likely candidates to shoot are Xavier's three, dynamic wings—either star Trevon Bluiett (who already had 25 points), Malcolm Bernard (who had 15) or J.P. Macura (14). But the play the Musketeers call is for Sean O'Mara, a 6'10", backup junior center with limited physical gifts. O'Mara says his reaction, when he hears the call, is to "try to hide my smile."
There's an element of surprise to the play, but the real impetus for it is the matchup. Arizona's 7-foot, Finnish freshman, Lauri Markkanen, is guarding O'Mara, who—as the ball rotates from the left wing to the top of the key—easily ducks in and post-pins Markkanen. This sets up a high-low pass for the game-winning layup, which the freshman doesn't have the length to contest:
An opponent with its season on the line chose to go at the biggest prospect on the floor—Markkanen—even though it meant running a set for a backup center who's not an NBA prospect. "We knew," Bluiett said after the game, that "Markkanen wasn't a really good defender compared to the other guys on their team, so we wanted to isolate him."
It's just one possession of the roughly 1,800 Markkanen played this season. You do not want to base conclusions on one possession. There were others where he defended well on the perimeter, or walled up effectively in the post. But it's also the last impression he leaves before heading into the NBA draft. It's a reminder to, at the very least, apply heavier scrutiny to his defense.
1. The Tall Draftees with Tepid Defensive Stats Club
Markkanen's advanced defensive stats as an Arizona freshman—a defensive-board percentage of 17.5, a block percentage of 1.8, a steal percentage of 0.8—were noticeably low for a big man who's a projected Lottery Pick.
Over the past 10 seasons (2008-present), 11 players have been drafted who were 6'10" or taller, and had a defensive-rebound percentage less than 20.0, a block percentage less than 5.0, and a steal percentage less than 2.0 in their final year of college. The list includes four one-and-dones, and it's mostly a collection of underachievers or busts:
Chart data source: kenpom.com
If you're an NBA team considering using a Lottery Pick on a prospect who'll be the next member of that club, he better be exceptional at some other aspect of the game. Ideally, he's similar to a big man from Cal who nearly fell into that club—his rebounding was just good enough to miss the cut—and is now making $20 million per year as a role player in one of the NBA's best offenses:
2. Shooting His Way to Forgiveness
Former Pac-12 star Ryan Anderson made it in the NBA because he shoots threes exceptionally well. The case for Lauri Markkanen is that you forgive the defensive stuff because he's a better shooter than any 7-footer who's come before him this decade. Markkanen passes the scouting eye test with gorgeous form, an ideal (almost unblockably high) release point, and fluid movement in pick-and-pop actions—both on catch-and-shoots and dribble pull-ups:
Giants that are accurate, high-volume three-point shooters in college are rare commodities, and Markkanen ranks among the best of them. In Draft Express' database of college stats from 2000-present, I found just 15 major-conference players, 6'10" or taller, who shot at least 40% from long-range on at least 4.0 attempts per game. Markkanen is the eighth-best overall, and—assuming his consensus mock-draft status is accurate—the most accurate of the first-round-caliber prospects. He's also the only 7-footer in the group:
Markkanen also has a strong, pre-Arizona resume of three-point shooting. In six FIBA events with Finland's junior programs from 2013–16, he was 41.7% (65-of-156) from deep. He's been a sniper ever since he hit the international hoops scene as a 16-year-old.
3. OK, But Is He The Next Dirk?
This comparison isn't going to go away. Dirk Nowitzki was a 7-foot, offensive-minded European whom the Mavericks landed with the No. 9 pick (in a trade with Milwaukee) in 1998. Markkanen is a 7-foot, offensive-minded European whom the Mavs may very well select with the No. 9 pick in 2017. But Dirk is one of the great scorers in NBA history, and he was a competent defender in the prime of his career. A more realistic aspiration for Markkanen would be a "more versatile Ryan Anderson" or a "better version of the Hornets' Frank Kaminsky"—not Dirk 2.0.
What Markkanen does have going for him is that he may be a better three-point shooter at age 20 than Nowitzki was. The asterisk is that it's impossible to obtain all of Dirk's pre-NBA shooting data. He played four seasons in Germany's second division (now called the 2.Bundesliga) from 1994–98, starting when he was 16 years old. Those stats don't exist on the Internet, and when I reached out to his now-defunct club (DJK Würzburg), the current club in his hometown (s.Oliver Würzburg), the Bundesliga offices, the national federation, and his German biographers, none of them had those stats or believed they existed anywhere outside of inaccessible, local newspaper-archive box scores.
But! Detailed shooting data is available for six Dirk appearances in FIBA junior and Under-22 tournaments with the German national team, as well as the Nike Hoop Summit, plus the half-season he played with his German club in the first Bundesliga during the '98–99 NBA lockout. That amounts to 1,258 pre-NBA minutes of playing time for Dirk, across multiple levels of competition. Because I was curious—not because I believe it's conclusive evidence of anything, or that it's apples-to-apples—I compared the Dirk data with the 2,098 minutes of pre-NBA data available on Markkanen, from the aforementioned Finnish FIBA events and his 37 games at Arizona.
In this sample, Markkanen's three-point shooting is well ahead of Dirk's, and Markkanen profiles as far more perimeter-oriented—and less capable of drawing fouls—than Dirk. That squares with the film-based scouting reports of the Finnish 7-footer. He is not Dirk, but his shooting is already elite. Markkanen's ceiling depends on the development of everything else, and the diminishing of his defensive liabilities.