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Arizona basketball: Lauri Markkanen is working to improve at defending without fouling

Markkanen has picked up four fouls in three of Arizona’s first four Pac-12 games, limiting his minutes and impact

NCAA Basketball: Texas Southern at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to find a weakness in Lauri Markkanen‘s game.

The freshman is leading the Arizona Wildcats in points (15.9) and rebounds (7.4) per game, while shooting 49 percent from the field and an impressive 46 percent from 3-point land.

The 7-footer is able to score at all three levels of the floor, and has been a model of consistency, scoring in double figures in all but one game this season.

That said, if there is a weak point to Markkanen’s game, it’s his defensive ability. More specifically, his ability — or lack thereof — to defend without fouling.

“I think the one thing that’s taken away from some of his highs is foul trouble,” head coach Sean Miller said Monday at his weekly press conference. “He had 22 points in 22 minutes the other day. If he played 30 minutes against Colorado, he might have had 30 points.”

Markkanen has fouled out twice this season, and has finished with four fouls in three of Arizona’s first four Pac-12 games.

The Wildcats are at their best when the Finn is on the floor, but lately foul trouble has led to less time on the court. Markkanen was averaging 32 minutes per game in non-conference play, but has been limited to 27.8 minutes per contest in Pac-12 play.

“Lauri’s a terrific player, that’s easily understood. Learning how to manage his fouls is next up for him,” Miller said. “And we have help to with that as well. He’s trying hard to be a better defender, like he makes harder plays around the rim, on the ball. He tries to draw charges. But there’s a time and a place depending on how many fouls you have to do those types of things.”

And given that Markkanen is one of Arizona’s marquee players, opponents are actively looking for ways to get him in foul trouble.

“If you have an older, experienced player like (Colorado’s) Xavier Johnson, you really have someone that can do that,” Miller said. “So they’re challenging Lauri on post ups and drives.”

Markkanen said last week that he has watched film of games that he has fouled out in, and the most important change he has to make is showing his hands on defense.

“They call a foul pretty easily if you have any hand check at all,” he explained.

It’s a change from European-style basketball in which Markkanen said a lot more contact is allowed, especially around the rim.

“In Europe you’re allowed to play tougher,” he said. “You can foul more near the basket without it being called a foul, so that’s a little bit of an adjustment.”

The good news regarding Markkanen’s defensive issues is that they are more a product of inexperience and unfamiliarity with the officiating than a lack of physical tools — therefore, they are more correctable.

“I think he’s way, way more able than a lot of people realize at 7-feet tall, mobility-wise to be in the right spot,” Miller said. “The fouls hurt him, but he’ll get better. If you think about Dusan (Ristic), it took him almost two and a half years to be more in the right place more often. Lauri’s only been here for half a season, so we’re working on that with him and he’s improving.”


You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire