As dominant as Lauri Markkanen has been for the Arizona Wildcats in his freshman season, his best basketball is in front of him.
The 7-footer from Finland, averaging 16.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, is still getting accustomed to the college game.
Saturday’s game against Missouri — a 79-60 road win for the Wildcats — was a prime example.
Markkanen scored a career-low eight points and was only on the floor for 21 minutes (also a career-low) because he dug himself into foul trouble. Eventually, Markkanen fouled out for the second time this season.
“In this game (against Missouri) maybe one (foul) could have gone either way or not be called, but I think he put himself at risk by coming down one late in the clock, and just almost stopping and hip-checking a drive, but those are things he’ll learn,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. “He’ll learn from that, he’ll grow from that, and believe me he doesn’t want to sit on the bench and we don’t want him on the bench for that reason.”
As a whole, defending without fouling has not been much of an issue for Markkanen this season. In Arizona’s ten games, he has only surpassed two fouls twice (both times he fouled out).
Still, getting used to the way the college game is officiated, as well as how it’s played, remains Markkanen’s biggest obstacle.
Previously, when Markkanen was with the Finnish national team, he was playing under FIBA rules and FIBA officiating, which Miller noted are far different than the setup in college basketball games.
“He’ll be the first one to tell you that,” Miller said of Markkanen and the rule differences. “So it takes a little time, but I think that’s a great reason to come over here and play college basketball if you’re him. Because once he gets it, he’ll never lose it, and I think that’s going to prepare him for what’s to come.”
But, what are the differences in how the games are played in FIBA and college? Miller, who was the head coach of the Team USA U19 team, said that reaching fouls are called similarly in FIBA as they are in college basketball, but the FIBA game is very physical around the basket and offensive players are not rewarded for recklessness.
“If the offensive player is really driving maybe without true purpose or he’s being super aggressive in FIBA, in my opinion, they’ll just let that play out,” Miller said. “They’re not going to reward the offensive player whereas by the letter of the law in the NCAA right now, with contact in that case it’s pretty much going to be called.”
Markkanen has picked up several fouls at Arizona — two in the Missouri game alone — where he made contact with a driver and was called for a foul.
Plus, there are far more blocking and charging fouls in college basketball, which Miller says are “non-existent” in FIBA.
“They don’t want the charge in FIBA basketball, so when you consider that, that both impacts Lauri on offense and defense, so he’s learning how to take the charge, learning how to play with players trying to take the charge on him,” Miller said.
Predictably, Markkanen has looked like a player that is unaccustomed to drawing and avoiding charges.
Against Butler, for example — the first game Markkanen fouled out of — the big man’s fifth and final foul was a charging foul. A Butler defender slid in front of a driving Markkanen at the last second to pick up the charge. It’s a play that one, a defender in FIBA probably does not attempt to make and two, would have likely been called a defensive foul under international officiating.
But in this case the foul was on Markkanen and the Wildcats would go onto lose 69-65 as their best player was forced to watch from the bench.
Lauri Markkanen picked up his fifth foul on this. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/nHzoplW2iu— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) November 26, 2016
“He’ll get better as he learns what’s being called and what’s not,” Miller said of Markkanen. “It just takes time. He’s just not going to have it right, and that’s why whatever our record is in non-conference play, the month of November, we’re not a well-versed, older, experienced team that’s been there and done that before. That’s not to our advantage here early on.”
Nonetheless, Markkanen said adjusting to the college game “hasn’t been easy, but it hasn’t been too difficult.”
It is hard to disagree as he has managed to make a significant — and instant — impact at Arizona.
And the same is true for freshmen Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons, who are Arizona’s second and third-leading scorers respectively, as they make the jump to college from high school.
“I think the positives, the upside, the ceiling that our team may be somewhat higher as some of these things are learned through game experience,” Miller said. “With every game that we play, I think watching the film of the game, practicing leading up to games, these younger guys are going to improve.”
Which is exactly why Markkanen decided to leave Scandinavia for Tucson in the first place.
“It’s been what I expected,” Markkanen said of his experience at Arizona. “I came here to learn more about basketball.”
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire for more Arizona basketball coverage.