The Utah Jazz have received a lot of press in these past four weeks. The most surprising team to start the season, are they not? Perhaps. They are (as of the time of this writing) the fourth seed in the West with a positive point differential—worth a double take considering they were seen as a contender to land Victor Wembanyama. “But what does this have to do with Lauri Markkanen?” you ask. That’s a decent question—and the answer has everything to do with All-Star voting! Let’s take a dive into what in the Julius Randle is going on.
Historically, All-Stars are selected through a mingling of their performances and their teams’ standings. This is great news for Lauri Markkanen. Why? Let me begin with an assertion—Lauri Markkanen is not an All-Star-level player, but… because of the Jazz’s record and preseason expectations, he might stand a chance to make the All-Star Game. “But… but…” you ask, “if Lauri Markkanen isn’t an All-Star-level player, why does he deserve to make the All-Star Game?”
I’m so glad you asked.
From the perspective that players should be rewarded for their ability or skill, the boost that some receive from being in the right situation is stupid. I’ve already fleshed this out (read here) so I won’t belabor any points. How this is relevant has lots to do with Lauri Markkanen’s case because, like I said, he doesn’t demonstrate All-Star skill but his name is littered in All-Star conversations. This was obvious when I published my first All-Star ballot of the season. My omission of Markkanen from either tier of All-Star consideration implied I did not consider him an All-Star-level player. This is correct. Resisting comments were quick to defend Markkanen’s case:
I clearly disagree with this, don’t I? And what’s the best way to further a point in a caring and considerable manner?—Making the opposing argument as strong as could possibly be.
To the best of my ability, I am going to lay out Lauri Markkanen’s All-Star case—but with a twist. I still only care about his efficacy as a player. Team, teammates, and attributes of the Utah Jazz’s system are irrelevant. I believe All-Stars deserve their recognition for playing like All-Stars, and Markkanen won’t receive a special treatment. So let’s get into it!
Markkanen has demonstrated solid three-point shooting during his career. His three-point percentage of 36.5% is unspectacular, and right in line with his career average of 36.4%. To me, he provides value as a shooter away from the ball—a stretch four who can catch and shoot at an above-average clip (40.2%), mostly in pick-and-pop situations. On the other hand, he’s an infrequent and inefficient pull-up shooter—a skill crucial to a player’s ability to create offense for teammates in a spaced-out offense. The Jazz have methodically had him work from the corners, spots (in which his three-point percentage is 45.8%) that are valuable real estate. The corners are also outlets for his attacks to the paint.
Markkanen is tall, strong, and sturdy with a fine-tuning of footwork that creates separation between defenders in the paint. He has spins, twists, and twirls that carve out floater-range shots. (Markkanen’s percentage of attempts that are floaters had nearly doubled from its previous high.) Farther downhill, he’s a solid finisher who can draw fouls and convert at high rates—driving about five times per game and finishing at a 76% rate. Markkanen does require “assistance” from teammates’ passes at times; he has burst as a big man, but not enough to get to the rim at will. (He often picks up his dribble only a few steps into the paint.) His bruising and jostling allows him to contend with formidable big men like Bam Adebayo and Anthony Davis close to the basket.
This is where his All-Star case becomes tricky. His scoring punch has been good—not great, for all intents and purposes—without a strong isolation package or slashing ability. His style is suited to play alongside a more demanding offensive force, a truer “number one” who can leverage the pick-and-pop and make timely passes when Markkanen cuts baseline. That’s a pretty good scoring package, but where it falls short is in its ability to boost the value of his lackluster passing. He’s had flashes of range and accuracy, but nothing that—when sifted through—indicates he’s growing into the role of a playmaker. (For instance, the percentage of Markkanen’s assists that end in layups is 21% below the league average.)
His defensive skills are slightly fuzzier to me. Markkanen defends a fair amount of shots at the rim, inducing misses without a high block rate. But any skills he has a rim protector have yet to translate to latent value, such as deterring shots at the rim. Teams are content to attack the rim with Markkanen on the floor, which could be a problem due to his nonexistent presence as a perimeter defender. He exemplifies the Jazz’s inconsistent switch tactics, so he doesn’t content many threes nor is he an avid helper. Without brushing up on his defensive range—which seems unlikely to happen in Utah—Markkanen’s argument as a clearly positive to strong defender seems weak.
The Jazz offense is a suitable place for him to mimic his ideal offensive role: a pick-and-pop, bruising, floater-range specialist who can score at two levels. In Utah, he’s a semi-frequent but undesirable pick-and-roll ball-handler, which is an action teams would want to avoid to build a strong offense. Paired with weak passing, I see Markkanen as a solid third-to-fourth option on a contending offense. Defensively, he’s going to need backline help from a stronger, rangier rim protector; and if he’s the primary rim protector, his team will need to bank on strong defensive play from guards to prevent open three-pointers.
Here are Markkanen’s ranks in high-level impact metrics :
- Backpicks BPM +2.6 (48th)
- Basketball-Reference BPM +2.8 (36th)
- Box RAPTOR +1.7 (80th)
- EPM +4.7 (23rd)
The Strongest Case
What is Markkanen’s upper bound?—the highest extent to which I can evaluate his impact. If that estimate doesn’t match All-Star level, by the rules of this exercise, Markkanen has no case to be an All-Star. I’ll view each of skills through the rosiest of glasses, give him the benefit of the doubt in all reasonable areas (considering the trade-offs between skill interactions). To start, here are Markkanen’s strengths as a player, by my scouting report:
- Floater-range footwork
- Bullying in the paint
- C&S and screening at the corners
- Complementary rim protection
I can’t reasonably upgrade his passing, nor is his off-ball package enough for me to say he’d be a “number two” on a contending offense. For that, he’d need rangy, connective passing to and from his corner spots. (In theory, these could lead to more layup passes.) His footwork and physical attributes can dismiss the notion that his scoring near the basket “will eventually cool down.” This version of his scoring—high volume on high efficiency—could be here to stay.
Defensively, I’m still convinced he needs backline help. His opponents are finishing at a low clip when he defends at the hoop, but it doesn’t justify Markkanen’s sedentary defensive role. He could probably help keep a poorer defensive afloat—but without a flank of perimeter defenders or a better rim protector as a failsafe, Markkanen’s defensive package is neither good nor bad. This all goes to say I see a limited ceiling on how highly I can evaluate his defense.
Markkanen’s impact metrics are inconclusive. EPM, which includes tracking data and plus-minus, pegs him at an All-Star level. But RAPTOR also includes these parts (in a varied fashion) and indicates he’s not close to contention! The box-score metrics both agree he’s outside contention. These metrics, in which force-fits to team performance can overstate players on teams that are greater than the sum of their parts (the Jazz), are reluctant to launch Markkanen into All-Star territory. This signal works against his “strongest” case.
Markkanen is not an All-Star.
Returning to the article’s title—what is the Lauri Markkanen Corollary? To my estimation, it’s when a team (the Jazz) jumps out with unexpected success. That team, whoever it may be (the Jazz), plays an egalitarian style, and its success is the function of many contributions from solid or good players, rather than fewer contributions from great players. But this explanation is unsatisfying—it’s too long, takes up too much headspace to put all the pieces together. Thus, the instinct is to look to one player (Markkanen) for the majority or all of his team’s success—the Lauri Markkanen Corollary.
 Box RAPTOR is my preferred variant of RAPTOR for all players. Especially early in the season, the plus-minus component is unstable. Markkanen ranks 66th in total RAPTOR.
 Data collected from Backpicks, Basketball-Reference, BBall-Index, DunksAndThrees, FiveThirtyEight, NBA, PBPStats.
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