With just seven scholarship players available, and a couple of guards getting into foul trouble, the Arizona Wildcats needed Lauri Markkanen to do just about everything on the court Tuesday night.
And he did.
“Lauri’s one of the best players in college basketball,” Sean Miller said after the game. “He’s a monster.”
The freshman, playing in his first collegiate home game, dropped a team-high 26 points and eight rebounds, all while only taking 11 shots from the field.
“I’m just trying to do what’s best for my team,” Markkanen said humbly after the game. “I’m just glad we won.”
“It’s not surprising to anyone in the locker room,” Kobi Simmons said about Lauri’s ability to step up. “That’s just what he does, and we’re glad we got the win.”
The final numbers for Lauri were 8-11 from the field, 1-3 from three, and a perfect 9-9 from the free throw line.
“Lauri’s an outstanding shooter,” Miller explained. “He’s a consistent shooter from the foul line, he’s a consistent shooter from 17 feet, and he’s consistent from three. It’s just up to us to make sure he gets good looks.”
“He’s a special, special player.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of his performance though was how he shifted from position to position so seemlessly. At one point, he was on the floor with Chance Comanche, Dusan Ristic, Keanu Pinder, and Kobi Simmons. This meant that Markkanen was playing the two for that short time frame.
And it was the first time he had ever played at that position.
“Actually, that was the first time I’ve ever played at the two,” Markannen said after the game. “I’m comfortable with it though, no problem.”
Even when Markkanen’s at the three, it’s something relatively new for this team.
“With our situation, it isn’t like we’ve had years of work with him at the three,” Miller said. “We started our season, he got no repetitions at the three at all. Everything was to play him at both the four and the five. This is just something that happened on the fly, so a lot of what you’re watching him do and watching our team go through, is just playing a group that hasn’t practiced much together.”
“When you’re playing a seven-footer at the three, you could say ‘Coach Miller, you’re doing a poor job of getting him the ball around the basket’ and you’re right. We’re not there yet. When he’s at the four and five, we’re a little bit more at ease because that’s what everyone’s seen in practice for 30 days.”
“As we learn to get him the ball inside, we’ll be an even tougher matchup.”
“It’s coming pretty good,” Markannen added about his development at small forward. “I watch a lot of film of guys playing the three, and coach is doing a pretty good job guiding me through practice.”
At half, Markannen and Rawle Alkins were tied for the team lead with 12 points apiece, but as Alkins’ hot stroke simmered down, Markkanen was just getting going. It seemed like he was able to run the floor more effectively, and was drawing all of the attention late in the game. He also ended up playing the most minutes on the team, tallying 36.
“I’m just calling it like it is,” Miller explained of Markkanen’s athleticism. “I’ve never seen it.”
“He just really knows how to play,” coach continued. “It’s almost like he has the game of a 6-foot-7 forward, he just happens to be seven foot. And he’s only going to get better because he’s about the right things, and it’s so refreshing to see someone as talented as he is be so about the team and such a hard worker.”
“It makes life easy for the coach.”
And unlike most seven-footers, Markkanen is not rail thin.
“Lauri’s strong,” Miller continued. “He’s not skinny, he’s not thin. He’s 18 years old, but physically he can take a pounding, and I think that really shows. He doesn’t appear to be seven-foot, because he’s not a real seven-footer.”
“He’s one of our team’s hardest workers. Early to practice. Most of the times he’ll stay after. Just so glad we have him.”
To go with all of this, he’s even putting in great work in the classroom. Miller said Markannen hasn’t gotten a B while at Arizona.
It’s kind of crazy to think that this is only Markannen’s second game at this level, he was forced to play positions he hasn’t really practiced, and still thrived and led this team to a victory. There are only big things ahead for this young Finnish player.