ORLANDO, Fla. — Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen is having the type of breakout season he always knew was possible.
Markkanen, who earned his first All-Star nod this year, scored 31 points and hit the game-sealing shot in Thursday night’s 131-124 win over the Orlando Magic, continuing the stellar season that has him poised to earn the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
“Having that confidence, being in the right system, with the right teammates, I think it’s just — keep working and I guess preparation meeting opportunity, right?” Markkanen told ESPN afterward.
But as Markkanen, 25, closes out his best season to date, he is trying to keep his focus on the future. While he is hopeful he wins the Most Improved Player award, he also wants the Jazz to continue to improve as a group. Thursday’s win improved Utah to 32-35, putting the Jazz a half-game out of the final play-in spot in the West.
“That’s some extra motivation, but I’m not really thinking about it,” Markkanen, a sixth-year player, said of the award. “I talked about the responsibility, and I’m enjoying the challenge, and if those individual goals happen, if we keep winning games and I keep doing my thing. I go every single day to keep working, and I hope that happens, but we’ll see. Just try to get these wins together and keep going from there, but obviously it would be a cool trophy to have at home, but that’s not the main goal right now.”
The main goal for Markkanen is improving a game that seems to be getting better and better each night. Jazz coach Will Hardy noted before Thursday’s win that he still sees plenty of “room for growth” as Markkanen’s confidence grows, adding, “I don’t know if we’re even close to the ceiling yet.”
For Markkanen, the trade to Utah last summer, which brought former Jazz star Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers, has paid immediate dividends for a player finally living up to the potential many saw in him as the No. 7 pick in the 2017 draft. He is averaging 25.5 points on 51.3% shooting from the field, both easily surpassing his previous career bests of 18.7 points and 48% shooting, both while with the Chicago Bulls.
But as Markkanen’s reputation in the league has grown, he hasn’t lost his appreciation for what brought him to this point. The Bulls, who acquired Markkanen in a draft-night trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, always believed he could become this type of player, but he was too inconsistent early in his career. That led to him being dealt to the Cavs in a three-team sign-and-trade in August 2021.
Markkanen was asked if he ever looks back and wishes that his two previous teams hadn’t given up on him.
“You can always look back,” he said. “I think that was the goal for everybody to stay with one team your whole career, but that doesn’t really happen too often anymore. Just the way things went, I might not have been the same player I am today. I was playing the 4 position [in Chicago]. I went to Cleveland, I played the 3. Obviously, the team worked on my body so I was able to play the 3. Now we play with a big lineup, so I think things clicked.
“So I’ve got no bad feelings toward [my previous teams]. They were using me for what was best for them, and I wasn’t the same player I am today. I wasn’t that in Chicago. No bad feelings toward them. It’s always fun to go back and talk to the guys.”
Markkanen is quick to point to his Jazz teammates as well as Hardy and his coaching staff when asked why it has clicked so well for him in Utah after stops with the Bulls and Cavaliers.
“Confidence is obviously good, but being in the right spot, being with the right coaching staff, right system, just using me to my strengths I would say,” Markkanen said, noting that Hardy has been “empowering” him this season.
Hardy said he has seen growth in Markkanen’s mental game while describing his overall improvement this season, saying that Markkanen has “grown into the mindset of a go-to guy.” Hardy said he appreciated the way Markkanen has continued to evolve on his approach, acknowledging that “it’s incredibly hard” to take the step to becoming the main guy on a team.
“That’s a lot of pressure every night,” Hardy said. “That’s a different mentality you have to have. He understands that his approach is just as important as actually converting plays on the court because he’s the leader of the team and the rest of the guys follow him. I’ve just been really proud of the way that he’s approached every game as the season’s gone on, as he’s sort of stepped into the forefront of our group.”
Markkanen was quick to smile when asked about the difference between being the guy counted on to make a big shot and being the guy counted on to make a big shot every night.
“I think I’m getting more and more comfortable in those situations,” he said. “Only way you get them is game reps, really. Sometimes you miss, sometimes you make ’em. I think just trying to get better and get to your spots. So it feels good.
Markkanen added: “[Hardy has] challenged me to do that, and I’m trying to have that responsibility. It doesn’t always mean I’m shooting it, but just making the right play. I think that’s the biggest thing. Even if it’s a shot or if it’s a pass or whatever, just try and be involved and knowing the defense is going to collapse if I drive. So I’m enjoying the challenge.”
Markkanen said it would have felt good if he made the All-Star team earlier in his career rather than as a sixth-year pro on his third team, but that he recognizes “not every storyline is the same.”
“I appreciate the down times, too,” he said. “I think that’s why I am the player that I am today, the human I am today, really. Because I was really in a dark place mentally at times just because I had the high expectations on myself and I wasn’t performing. So I think just remembering the tough times makes you appreciate the All-Star nod. Getting the opportunity to be the guy at the end of the games, you appreciate that after you’ve had some rougher times.”