Hitting the Mark: How Lauri Markkanen emerged as a star in Utah
Before the season began, I touted Lauri Markkanen as a sleeper with major upside in the Ultimate FBA Draft Guide. My exact quote was:
Markkanen (93.6 ADP) was one of the most impressive producers in his draft class as a sophomore, and appeared as though he had a 20-10 future. Injuries and talented teammates have kept him from building on that start to his career, but this season he’s healthy and looks to be featured on a rebuilding Jazz team that has traded away its veteran starters.
If anything, I understated his upside.
Halfway through the season, Markkanen has shot right past 20 points per game and is approaching 10 rebounds per game, averaging 24.5 PPG (52.4 FG%, 87.5 FT%, 41.1 3P%), 8.5 RPG and 2.9 3PG. All of those numbers would represent pretty dramatic career-highs for Markkanen and could very well earn him his first NBA All Star appearance in February.
But is this real? Is Markkanen really a young star on the rise that’s coming into his own, or is he just a guy putting up empty numbers on a bad team that won’t be able to sustain this success long-term?
First off, Markkanen is leading the Jazz — a team that was universally written off as a leader in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes this offseason — into playoff contention. If the season ended today, Utah would be in the play-in tournament, playing into the postseason with Markkanen carrying them there. This feels like legitimate impact to me.
The analytics impact stats like Real Plus Minus support this conclusion as well. Markkanen has the highest RPM on the Jazz, with his presence on the court correlating with an estimated +5.1 points per 100 possessions in his team’s scoring margin. This ranks in the top-20 in the NBA in the measure, slotted just behind Ja Morant (5.3 RPM) and Damian Lillard (5.1 RPM) and slightly ahead of Jimmy Butler (4.9 RPM), Kyrie Irving (4.9 RPM) and Jaylen Brown (4.7 RPM).
So, by both team success versus expectation and analytics-measured impact, Markkanen is one of the best players in the NBA this season and a worthy potential All Star. New question: how is he achieving this?
First of all, Markkanen is knocking down shots like a Hall-of-Famer this season. In fact…watch this. According to Second Spectrum, among all players that have taken at least 500 shots this season, here is the NBA ranking for best effective field goal percentage (EFG%, accounting for both 2-point and 3-point shots):
1. Nikola Jokic, 64.6 EFG%
2. Stephen Curry, 61.9 EFG%
3. Lauri Markkanen, 61.5 EFG%
4. Kevin Durant, 60.7 EFG%
Not a bad list to be in the midst of.
As mentioned above, Markkanen is a couple free throw percentage points away from having a 50/40/90 season going while averaging almost 25 PPG. And that’s for the entire season, including Markkanen’s relatively slower start. In his last 23 games played, going back through November 21, Markkanen is averaging 26.3 PPG on 50.9 FG%, 43.4 3P% and 91.0 FT%. So, he’s playing at 50/40/90 season now, and has been for awhile, even if it hasn’t quite caught up to his season-long stats yet.
A breakdown of Markkanen’s shot chart, also through Second Spectrum, illustrates that he is finishing just about every shot style at an elite level. His 61.5 EFG% translates to an incredibly 1.45 points per possession for the Jazz when Markkanen shoots. The top-6 most common shot types for Markkanen break down as such, including the points per possession (PPP) for each:
1. Catch and Shoot: 1.59 PPP
2. Driving layup: 1.52 PPP
3. Catch and Shoot Relocating: 1.37 PPP
4. Cut Layup: 1.61 PPP
5. Standstill Layup: 1.59 PPP
6. Step back: 1.33 PPP
To give those numbers a bit of context, the the Celtics have had the best team offense in the NBA this season, scoring 1.18 PPP. But when Markkanen shoots in almost any way, the Jazz offense produces points at a significantly better rate. Markkanen is elite at working off the ball as a catch-and-shoot or cutter, forcing opposing defenses to game plan and account for him even when he doesn’t have the ball. He’s also an on-ball threat as well, creating his own shot off the dribble with excellent scoring efficiency on driving layups and step back jumpers. And I should point out, Markkanen is listed at 7-foot, 240 pounds and faces plenty opposing big men, who struggle to guard a player who is just as comfortable outside the arc as he is in the paint.
Earlier this week I wrote about Nikola Jokic’s positive effect on the Nuggets offense as a center that can shoot. It’s not just that Markkanen can get his own shot and finish efficiently, but that he destabilizes opposing defenses by forcing rim protectors to play out of position. This creates spacing issues and imbalanced defenses, making it easier for Markkanen’s teammates to attack and get looks. Which, circling back, is a big reason why Markkanen is one of the best impact scorers in the NBA this season.
Markkanen’s awesome offensive season is translating to fantasy basketball as well. While his ADP was in the 90s during the preseason, he currently has the 15th-most fantasy points in NBA, is producing high volume scoring at high efficiency, and his production is almost entirely additive with little negatives. Since this analysis suggests that Markkanen’s numbers are highly impactful for his NBA team, it is likely that he will continue to produce for fantasy managers moving forward. Players that put up empty stats based on opportunity can run into problems if the team trades for someone better or decides to start giving other players more playing time. But, since Markkanen is the real deal, the Jazz will want to continue to feature and develop him as a franchise building block.
This is great for Markkanen’s FBA and and dynasty value as well. He has always had size, talent and skill, but this season they’ve all come together with opportunity, health and experience to produce a career season. At only 25 years old, Markkanen should continue to get better and even more productive over this season and the ones to come.