‣ Lauri Markkanen, the Utah Jazz forward, is considered highly valuable due to his versatility in play and scoring efficiency.
‣ Markkanen is also noted to be a better defender than most people assume, with his defensive skills ranking high in the BBall Index’s database.
‣ The Jazz team is reportedly looking for a high return for Markkanen’s services, with his value likened to that of an All-Star caliber player.
Here’s some key info to chew on. Markkanen? He’s like a seven-foot Stephen Curry when he’s off the ball. And guess what? He’s a better defender than most people give him credit for. Also, the Jazz’s trade ask? He’s worth it.
Now, let’s talk about Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen. Rumors are swirling that he might be the next star player to switch teams. Recently, word on the street was that the team was open to offers for the seventh-year one-time All-Star. But this week, Kevin O’Connor from The Ringer dropped a bombshell. The Jazz are looking for “five-ish firsts and/or players of comparable value” in return for Markkanen’s services.
So, what makes Markkanen so valuable? Why is the Jazz asking for so much for him? And what does history tell us about what Utah could get in return?
Let me be clear, I don’t think the Jazz should trade Markkanen. The guy’s only 26 and he’s already a solid player. Teams rebuild with the hope of getting talent like him. Trading him away? That’s basketball nihilism in my book. But let’s dive into what makes him so good.
Markkanen didn’t earn the nickname “The Finnisher” just because he’s from Finland. He’s a serious contender for the most complete play-finisher in the league. According to Dunks & Threes, 84% of his field goals are assisted (81st percentile).
But here’s the thing. Unlike many players with similar assisted field goal percentages, Markkanen doesn’t just take spot-up threes or just throw down lobs. Thanks to his size and shooting skills, he can do both at a high level. This season, he’s in the 90th percentile in rim finishing and 59th percentile in 3-point percentage (he’s in the 92nd percentile in 3-point volume).
Even though the Jazz are not as good as they were last season (they really miss Mike Conley), Markkanen is still in the 93rd percentile in scoring volume (25.3 points per 75 possessions) and 79th percentile in scoring efficiency (62.2% true shooting).
But his versatility isn’t the only thing that sets Markkanen apart from other play-finishers. Most play-finishers operate as an extension of the on-ball playmakers they flank. They are a release valve that the ball handler turns to once they have earned the attention of additional defenders.
Very few of these play-finishers create offense for themselves or others. Even fewer can use their gravity to create chaos. If you hadn’t already guessed, Markkanen is one of those select few.
In the clip above, you see Jordan Clarkson take and miss a wide-open three. But there’s more to it than that. Take a second look, and you’ll see that the shot was created by Markkanen.
Clarkson set a down screen for Markkanen. Normally, like-sized defenders like Gary Harris and Franz Wagner would just switch that off-ball action. However, the Orlando Magic don’t want Harris trying to defend Markkanen (because of his size). So, they have him tag Markkanen until Wagner can recover. Then, Harris will go back to Clarkson. The problem with that is that on his way back, Walker Kessler was already there to set another screen!
In a lot of ways, Markkanen is like a 7-foot Stephen Curry when he’s off the ball. Teams are always hyper-fixated on him because they don’t want to accidentally leave him open for three or concede a matchup that Markkanen could exploit. Switching is pretty much off the table in any screening action involving him.
Here, the Memphis Grizzlies make the mistake of switching the Keyonte George and Markkanen pick-and-roll with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jacob Gilyard. This leads to Gilyard defending Markkanen and an easy two points for Utah. Now, this is a bit of an extreme example (considering Gilyard is the shortest active player in the NBA). But the Jazz regularly make a killing off these mismatch situations.
The Jazz have very little by way of on-ball playmaking and pull-up shooting (like we said, they miss Conley). And as a result, their offense is pretty bad (25th in offensive rating). However, when Markkanen is on the floor, their offense is slightly above average (53rd percentile, per Cleaning the Glass).
This is an atypical statistical footprint for a player of Markkanen’s archetype. Normally, dependent scorers struggle on poor teams because they don’t have anyone to create easy opportunities for them. However, Markkanen’s gravity and all the chaos it creates helps boost this downtrodden Jazz unit, making Markkanen one of the rare play-finishers with both floor and ceiling-raising properties.
Speaking of being a deviation from traditional player type norms, Markkanen is also a much better defender than you would think. As a sweet-shooting seven-foot European, many people look at Markkanen and automatically assume that he sloths around on defense like a modern-day Dirk Nowitzki (for the record, Nowitzki was a better defender than most people remember!).
Those folks are surprised when they turn on a Jazz game to see Markkanen mirroring guards on their drives (first and second clips in the montage below), using his length to create turnovers (third clip), and contributing some secondary rim protection (fourth and five clips).
According to BBall Index’s database (which dates back to 2013), Markkanen’s 2022-23 season (they don’t have 2023-24 numbers out yet) ranked in the 98th percentile in Defensive Positional Versatility and 98th percentile in Rim Points Saved per 75.
Those marks don’t mean that he’s an elite switch defender and rim protector. But they do indicate that he has the size and agility to defend multiple positions, and that he has the length to offer some rim protection.
Last season, when the Jazz allocated more minutes to veteran players (thereby making them more competitive as a team), Markkanen was in the 81st percentile in Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus (remember, how a player performs in one-number metrics is largely dependent on their team context).
Markkanen is one of the best offensive bigs in the league. But he doesn’t come with the same roster-building constraints that other offensive unicorns are burdened with. His largely off-ball role on offense means that you can flank him next to high-usage ball handlers without having to worry about diminishing returns in his individual effectiveness.
And unlike many other offense-first bigs, he’s a pretty good defender. So, Markkanen doesn’t need to be the worst defender on the floor for your team to still have a good defense.
Markkanen gives front offices flexibility in how they want to build out their roster. And it’s that flexibility that makes him immensely valuable. If I had to put a number on that value, I’d say he’s an All-Star caliber player right now (so around a top-25 player). And although no one is asking me to directly compare them, just to give you a point of reference, I’d personally take him over guys like Jaylen Brown, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Brandon Ingram.
With that in mind, if we’re operating under the assumption that he’s an All-Star caliber player, the last time a player of his pedigree was moved was in October when Jrue Holiday was traded to the Boston Celtics.
Back then, the Celtics gave up two first-round picks, Robert Williams III and Malcolm Brogdon. At that time, prior to Williams’ latest season-ending injury, it was fair to say that both he and Brogdon could have garnered a first-round pick on their own in the open market. So, basically, the Celtics traded four first-round picks for Holiday.
Markkanen isn’t nearly as battle-tested as Holiday, especially considering he’s never even played in a playoff game. But he is seven years younger than Holiday and on a deal that is just as long (expires at the end of the 2024-25 season) and nearly half as expensive.
With those factors in mind, it isn’t that bizarre to believe that Markkanen could land the Jazz one more first-round pick (or the player equivalent of a first-round pick) than the Portland Trail Blazers got for Holiday.
Regardless, based on what we know about Markkanen right now, it’s fair to say that he’s worth the lofty price the Jazz are asking for.