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Why Lauri Markkanen Is Still A Great Prospect Despite Defensive Struggles

Editor Dakota Schmidt explains why Lauri Markkanen’s defensive issues might be overblown.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Arizona vs Saint Mary's Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

After weeks and months of discussion and deliberation regarding the vast majority of prospects, we’ve now reached the point where the 2017 NBA Draft is only hours away. As we move within reach of draft night, the uncertainty has only grown larger due to recent Celtics/Sixers trade and the wide array of All-NBA talent that might be moved between now and Thursday evening.

Alongside that, fans across the NBA will enter Draft night anxious about if their team will select a game-changing player or someone that will be playing in Europe before their rookie contract is done. While there’s a certain level of anxiety regarding all NBA Draft prospects, perhaps the most glaring example of that comes from former Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen.

Entering the NBA Draft after only one season in college, the 7-foot Markkanen undoubtedly stands as the best stretch big in this year’s NBA Draft. That status was due to him shooting 42% from beyond the arc on 4.4 perimeter attempts per game. His great percentage eclipsed terrific perimeter shooters like Malik Monk (40%) and Lonzo Ball (41%).

Markkanen’s success was mainly due to how he just approached the perimeter more like a guard than your typical 7-foot shooter. While most power forwards simply just stand still and take a jumper after working as a screener, Markkanen prefers to take the action into his own hands. This approach pushes Markkanen to get an open look by either utilizing quick handles or actually utilizing another off-ball screen. An example of Markkanen’s unique approach is seen in the play below as Markkanen hits a pretty step-back jumper over the head of a Colorado defender.

This approach also helps him out inside the paint, as Markkanen has shined as a pretty decent mid-range shooter. From within the perimeter, Markkanen is extremely confident with moving to his designated area and putting up a mid-range jumper. Markkanen’s confident was evident by his numbers as he shot 42% on jumpers inside the perimeter, according to Hoop-Math.com.

Another area where Markkanen’s solid handles are able to help him succeed on the offensive end is as an on-ball driver. At this point, it seems like Markkanen can only drive to the right side of the point. While that factor does limit him, Markkanen is ocassionally still able to shine as he’s a capable driver that can quickly move his way from the perimeter to the paint. Markkanen’s skills as a cutter are seen in the clip below where he makes a nice drive to the rim which includes a pretty spin move.

Of course, his work as a driver currently sits as the third wheel in Markkanen’s offensive repertoire behind mid-range and perimeter shooting. However, this is definitely a trait that could push Markkanen to be an extremely dynamic offensive threat if he’s able to refine it.

Even without being a refined on-ball driver, Markkanen was still able to stand as one of the best offensive prospects in this year’s draft. Per 40 minutes, Markkanen put up 20.2 points and 9.3 rebounds (3.1 offensive) on 49% from the field and 42% from beyond the arc. Those shooting averages pushed Markkanen to maintain a 63% True Shooting Percentage, which allowed him to be more efficient than Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz and Josh Jackson.

Although Markkanen is terrific on the offensive end, there’s a different story to his play on the other end of the court. From a defensive perspective, Markkanen definitely stands as a significant work in progress due to the fact that he was pretty bad at Arizona. Those struggles become easily apparent when you look at his numbers, as Markkanen only averaged .7 blocks and .5 steals per 40 minutes. To truly put things in perspective, guards Lonzo Ball and Edmond Sumner eclipsed the 7-footer as they both averaged .9 blocks per 40 minutes

His struggles as a rim protector is largely due to his smaller 225 pound frame. While he stands as a 7-footer, most college bigs were able to out-muscle Markkanen inside the paint which ultimately led to the opposition getting easy post-up looks and offensive rebounds. That simple fact allows Markkanen to be a huge question mark on this side of the court.

However, there is some hope for Markkanen’s defense due to his solid mobility. That solid agility allows Markkanen to be a solid pick-and-roll defender as he utilizes his quick feet to just trap an opposing guard while they try to work in pick-and-rolls. Even if he isn’t able to trap them, Markkanen’s mobility allows him to stick with guards or wings as they move from the perimeter to the paint.

Does Markkanen have his issues on the defensive end? Absolutely. But I still don’t quite think it’s fair to qualify him as a one-way player. While he’ll have to build plenty of mass to handle NBA bigs, Markkanen can still shine as someone that can be a solid pick-and-roll defender. That singular talent could motivate his coaches to keep him on the floor even if he might struggle inside the paint. If Markkanen is play good enough defense to build that confidence, his work on the offensive end could allow him to end up as one of the best prospects in this year’s NBA Draft.