After two unusual, low-scoring performances in Oregon, Sean Miller took a seat next to Lauri Markkanen on the flight back to Tucson.
The 7-footer combined for just 12 points in Arizona’s split against the Oregon schools, and Miller wanted to gauge how the freshman was handling what was the worst two-game stretch of his collegiate career.
Markkanen was fine.
“That’s who he is. That’s his strength,” Miller said of Markkanen’s ability to stay even-keeled. “He’s the same every day. He doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low.”
Markkanen shot 2-11 from the field against Oregon State and Oregon, including just 1-6 from behind the arc. In the 27-point loss to Oregon, Markkanen had a season-low four points.
“What I see isn’t that there’s anything wrong with his shot, it’s that as teams watch him and learn us and we’re now in February, more familiarity, you play against a team like Oregon ... they’re going to try to take away your strengths,” Miller said.
Miller says part of Markkanen’s recent struggles can be explained by the team’s inability to get him the ball in favorable positions to score.
“I credit both Oregon State and Oregon for doing a really good job of knowing where he’s at and challenging his shots, making it more difficult to get him in the ball in a scoring area,” Miller said. “We have to do a better job as a team and as a coaching staff of being able to free him up as best we can giving him good looks. And I think the other part with Lauri is, especially against zones, being able to use his size a little bit more around the basket where he can get more second shots, more 2-point shots where he’s not just relying on a catch-and-shoot 3-point shot. Because he’s way more versatile than just that.”
In the last five games, 21 of Markkanen’s 37 shot attempts have come from behind the arc.
“He’s not 6-foot-7. He’s not a thin guy that can’t score around the basket,” Miller said. “Being able to get him the ball in the paint, high-post, low-post, on the block more is part of what’s going to help him score more consistently against these variety of defenses.
“Transition is the other part. When the [opposing] team’s constantly making the shot, it’s not as easy to push the ball and get transition opportunities, but all great shooters benefit by a faster pace and we weren’t able to generate a whole lot of transition opportunities in either game, but especially Oregon.”
Could Allonzo Trier’s return have something to do with Markkanen’s downturn, too?
Since Trier returned to Arizona’s lineup, Markkanen is averaging just 11.6 points per game and is only taking 7.4 shots per contest. He is shooting 46 percent during that span.
All three numbers are below Markkanen’s season averages.
However, Miller dispelled the possibility that the two events are related.
“The addition of Allonzo will only help Lauri because it will help take pressure off,” he said. “[Defenses] have to worry about another scorer, somebody that can drive the ball, get to the foul line, another 3-point shooter. There’s more balance and because of that, that doesn’t allow the defense to focus their attention on just [Lauri]. We have some other good players, don’t get me wrong, but from a scoring perspective, Allonzo is probably that second-best scorer. So anytime you can add another player out there who’s versatile, who can score and have a big night, that only helps Lauri.”
UA point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright thinks Markkanen’s dip is a product of opposing teams being more familiar with the Wildcats’ offense.
“They’re playing him really closely, squeezing him on all ball screens. On pick-and-pops they’re just staying with him and really trying to take him away,” Jackson-Cartwright said.
“So I think for us as players and I know the coaching staff are just going to try to find better ways to give him the ball and I think we can be successful in doing some different things.”
Jackson-Cartwright also doesn’t expect Markkanen’s slump to last very long.
“Lauri is a hard worker. I think after he got back he went in the gym and just got a bunch of shots up,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “He’s not discouraged or anything, and we have the ultimate confidence in him and we know that’s going to bounce back quickly and he’s going to be the guy we know he is, so we’re not too worried about him.”
But Markkanen — and the team — will bounce back quicker from the loss to Oregon if he’s put in a better position to succeed.
“I believe if we can correct it that we’ll be a much better team and (it will) allow Lauri to score easier because no matter how great of a shooter you are, if you’re only relying on perimeter jump shots there’s going to be those games where they can take that away from you,” Miller said.
Jackson-Cartwright has been struggling in his own right lately, and he would be the first one to admit it.
“I think I’ve had some good moments and I think for myself, I can do better,” he said Monday. “I don’t make any excuses on the injury or anything like that. I know myself and I can play better for my team, and that’s what I want to do.”
In Arizona’s last four games, the junior has gone scoreless three times, and in the last three games, Jackson-Cartwright has seven turnovers to just four assists.
“I think I’ve been a little lackadaisical with the ball, and I’ve been giving it away too much and that’s on myself,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “I’ll just correct a few things and keep working.”
Jackson-Cartwright said his high ankle sprain — which he suffered on Nov. 30 against Texas Southern — still lingers from day to day.
“It feels better some days than others, but I’m trying to not think about it to much and just trying to play through it and get as much treatment as I can,” he said.
Jackson-Cartwright’s best performance in recent games was his nine-point outing in UA’s win over Oregon State last Thursday.
He hit two 3s and was a key part in the highlight play of the game.
After intercepting a pass, Jackson-Cartwright found Kobi Simmons in transition with a high-arcing lob that Simmons slammed home.
Initially, it looked like the pass was sailing too high for Simmons, and Jackson-Cartwright even thought it was going out of bounds.
Evidently, no pass is too tall for Simmons, though, as he grabbed it and finished with authority.
“It was actually a bad pass, and I told him ‘I don’t even know how you caught that,’” Jackson-Cartwright said. “It was supposed to go out of bounds. But that just shows how special he is and what he brings. I know he’s looking for me and I’m throwing it whether or not he’s jumping and he went and got it. It was pretty impressive.”
Here’s another look at it if you missed it:
Another game, another ridiculous dunk by @JordanKobi pic.twitter.com/C8C45lZZgJ— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) February 3, 2017
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire