(First posted at RealGM.)
Seven-footer Lauri Markkanen posted dominant numbers at the FIBA European Championships U20 this summer, averaging 33.8 points per 36 minutes on 62.7% true shooting and posting a 42.5 PER – according to our stats database.
Finland lost four out of seven games and placed 15th out of 16 teams in a tournament hosted in Helsinki but Markkanen’s individual greatness cemented his status as a high end NBA prospect. As he enrolls at Arizona, looking for a level of competition higher than the one he’s faced in Finland’s second division, Markkanen starts the season ranked 13th in Draft Express’ top 100.
In Tucson, Markkanen will have a more talented group around him and will have the chance to compete for wins in a way he wasn’t able to with the Finnish junior national team. The flipside of that is he will get the ball less than he is accustomed to. Markkanen posted a 35.5% usage-rate in the European Championships U20, which will certainly not be the case in a team with Allonzo Trier, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Dusan Ristic and Kobi Simmons in it.
Markkanen possesses a combination of size and skill level that immediately places him in the conversation of which guys have potential to eventually end up becoming the number one overall pick next year.
But it’s questionable whether he’ll get enough shots to stand out that much, especially considering Markkanen – as is the case with most 19-year-olds – does not have a fully-developed game yet and will need the help of his coach to get the sort of shots that make him look his best.
His top skill at this point of his development is the catch-and-shoot outside shot. Markkanen has proven himself able to make shots off the catch from just about anywhere on the floor, not just out of standstill position on spot-ups but also after setting a ball-screen and moving to an open spot around the wing or getting a pindown screen himself.
Spacing the court as a threat who commands a weak-side defender not to have two feet inside the lane is important and being an asset who can come off screens is nice but it’s his ability to make shots out of the pick-and-pop that will make Markkanen a more valuable commodity.
He is not an elite shooter yet, with a release that needs a little bit of time to load up, but has a clean stroke and great touch on his shot. Markkanen projects as especially deadly if paired with the sort of attacking guard whose speed on dribble drives forces the big defender to track him one or two steps into the lane, as the release on his shot is high enough that such long closeouts don’t seem to bother his attempts.
Outside shooting is also Markkanen’s best asset in the post as well.
He has a weak 225-pound frame in the context of his seven-foot height and lacks toughness on top of that. Markkanen often struggles to establish deep position or bully his way into short-range shots against opposing big men. Maybe he’ll grow into it as his body develops but, as of now, Markkanen is not cut out to make a living with his back to the basket.
That’s not any sort of deal breaker, though. Players with his skill profile really only need a viable post game in order to prevent opponents from going small against them without any repercussions. Markkanen can punish smallball or switches with his turnaround, fade-away jumper – borderline impossible for smaller players to contest effectively – and his passing. He hasn’t shown advanced, Boris Diaw-level passing skills or anything but has proven can make simple kick-outs against soft double teams, even when those require an escape dribble into tight spaces.
And even when he is pushed to 17-20 feet away from the basket on stationary, ‘fight-for-position’ post-ups by more physically imposing big men, Markkanen’s face-up, no-dribble, mid-range jumper off a jab-step is a high percentage proposition considering he can get those shots off cleanly because those opposing big men tend to give him some space in fear of his dribble drives.
A play the Finnish junior squad ran quite a bit for Markkanen was loading up one side, and then simply giving him the ball at the opposite elbow for a face-up drive. No big men in his age group at that level seemed able to stay in front of him, with his quick first step, and Markkanen often earned lots of scores at the rim elevating with power out of one foot and foul shots via those isolations.
He also got plenty of opportunities to attack off the bounce from the perimeter, even getting a ball-screen here and there for some big-small pick-and-rolls. Markkanen has proven to be an adept dribble driver with straight-line paths to the basket, able to maintain his balance through contact to get within close range or take a stop-and-pop pull-up jumper against soft ball pressure, though his finishing against length at the basket was subpar.
We’ll see how much of his dribble drive game translates against American athletes or if he’ll even get many opportunities to attack off the bounce a whole lot within Sean Miller’s offense. Having the chance to flash some floor game is the sort of stuff that could elevate his stock into top-five status.
But even based on what he showed at the junior level in Europe, Markkanen should not be confused with the sort of new age power forward who can often create offense for himself and others 25 feet away from the basket; guys like Draymond Green, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and Dragan Bender. He hasn’t shown much of a tight handle, side-to-side shake to play with pace or the ability to pass on the move; all assets needed to break down a set defense with regularity.
Much like his floor game, Markkanen’s defense is also a mixed bag.
He possesses the agility and coordination to develop into an above average defender guarding above the foul line.
The Finnish junior national team had him hedging-and-recovering a lot against high pick-and-rolls and it seems Arizona will use that approach quite a bit as well, based on what they showed in their televised intra-squad scrimmage. Hedging is an iffy strategy because it demands the three defenders behind the play to be attentive to their zone responsibilities and that’s not always the case. But Markkanen, specifically, is pretty good at doubling the ball and slowing down the development of the play in a way that’s very effective due to his lateral quickness.
That side-to-side agility also makes Markkanen an asset to pick up smaller players on switches. He doesn’t bend his knees to get low in a stance but has proven able to keep pace with these smaller players when they attempt to drive around him and he can challenge shots from behind effectively. That said, Markkanen is not suited to staying with these smaller players if they give up the ball, as he tends to get lost in space as a weak-side defender and doesn’t closeout to shooters very well.
But the biggest issue with Markkanen’s performance on that end regards his defense close to the basket.
He is attentive to his responsibilities rotating to the front of the basket in help defense but lacks length (average seven-foot wingspan in the context of his seven-foot height) and explosive leaping ability to act as a constant shot blocking threat.
Markkanen also struggles holding his ground in the post and boxing out opposing big men in order to control the defensive glass. He’s often posted good rebounding numbers in the events he’s participated but that tended to be the case because of uncontested boards attained due to fortunate positioning close to the basket. Markkanen should gain more strength as his body develops and expand his natural rebounding area but has never really shown much tenacity fighting for 50-50 balls.
Markkanen’s upside is as a stretch-five who can open up the lane entirely for perimeter players to drive and cut without worrying about a rim protector challenging them at the basket. But those concerns regarding interior defense keep that strategy from being viable for long stretches right now.
At this point, Markkanen projects as a pure stretch-four type who can have gravity working with an attacking guard on the pick-and-pop and punish opponents who try to go smaller against him (as he’s also able to keep pace with them in the perimeter on the other end) but needs a center who can anchor an above average defense by his side.
 Though you don’t see teams running pindowns for big men all the often, other than baseline out-of-bound sets.
 He averaged 10.5 shots per 36 minutes at the FIBA European Championships U20 this summer.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara