When Lauri Markkanen walked into his postgame interview, the 7-footer from Finland did something rare. He fumbled the basketball he was carrying, letting it bounce on the ground a few times before corralling it.
After picking it up and letting out a sheepish grin, Markkanen sat in a chair and stared at reporters.
“Oops,” he said with a laugh.
While it’s odd to see a player enter a press conference holding a basketball, what Markkanen had done moments earlier on the court at Vivint Arena warranted such a rare spectacle.
He set a career-high with 38 points as Utah stayed atop the Western Conference standings following their 134-133 victory over Phoenix on Friday night.
“He’s been just as impressive as an athlete, having not been around him before, as he is a basketball player,” head coach Will Hardy said. “I don’t know what the ceiling is on Lauri. … I don’t think any of us do, but I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen it yet.”
While scoring 38 points in itself is impressive, what made Markkanen’s night even better was the way he went about it.
Using an array of offensive moves in and outside the arc, Markkanen finished 15-of-18 shooting, adding 2-of-3 from three-point territory and 6-of-8 from the free throw line. Most importantly, he went toe-to-toe with Suns star Devin Booker, who had a big night with 49 points.
“My teammates,” Markkanen said when asked how his career high happened. “My teammates passed me the ball when I was open. … We ran some off-the-ball stuff and got good looks at the rim.”
He was extremely effective without the ball in his hands, cutting like a guard and finding open spaces against Phoenix’s defense. The Jazz used him in many split actions, and he rewarded the team with great finishes at the rim and powerful dunks.
He has a unique awareness of how to play without the ball, and his timing on when to cut and screen has proven elite. He’s been even better in using screens to free himself up for shots, showing the sort of patience rarely seen from someone of his size.
“He causes a lot of problems with his ability to read the game off the ball,” point guard Mike Conley said. “We’ve had more actions with him slipping to the rim and getting layups and dunks than we’ve probably had in a long time. He’s a really smart player, and with his height and size, he can finish over a lot of people and still make plays for other guys on the weak side.”
Let’s not get it twisted either — it’s not as if Markkanen’s performance on Friday was an outlier. He’s been playing at an All-Star level since Hardy unleashed his vast skillset with the Jazz.
He’s averaging career-highs of 22.2 points on 15.4 attempts per game, shooting 54.4% from the field. His 2.4 assists per game is also a career-high, while 8.3 rebounds are second.
Among frontcourt players in the Western Conference, his field goal percentage is ranked second, and his points are seventh. He leads all NBA forwards in effective field goal percentage (61.1%) for players averaging 15 points per game or more.
It’s why he’s already generating massive All-Star buzz, even if the February showcase is three months away. Whether it be his teammates or pundits around the league, some are beginning to believe in the hype and understand that it’s more lasting than it is fleeting.
“His teammates know how good he is and how good he can be, and they are probably empowering him more than I am,” Hardy said. “You look at him and you wouldn’t assume that he’s that mobile and that nimble. Like, his footwork, it’s not just like the speed in a straight line. … It’s his footwork in tight spaces and ability to change direction.”
As for that basketball that Markkanen fumbled postgame, it was the game ball from his incredible night — picked up by Jordan Clarkson once the buzzer sounded. But instead of going on his mantle, he thinks his kids will end up playing with it as he hopes it’ll be replaced soon enough.