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Arizona basketball: Wildcats benefitting from Lauri Markkanen’s improved all-around game

The 7-footer has become more than just a shooter for the Wildcats

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

Take a glance at Lauri Markkanen’s DraftExpress profile and you will see the three words they use to describe him are “7-foot Finnish sniper.”

Heck, ask anyone that knows anything about basketball to describe Markkanen and the first thing they will likely mention is his jump shot — and deservedly so.

With a quick, silky smooth release, the 7-foot freshman is shooting 43 percent from 3 this season, putting him in the conversation to be college basketball’s best 7-foot shooting big man ever.

That being said, Markkanen’s game isn’t defined by his jumper, and he has put that on display in the NCAA Tournament.

Despite only making one 3 in the Arizona Wildcats’ first two NCAA Tournament games, Markkanen is averaging 18 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, while shooting 11-for-18 from the field.

His scoring has come nearly entirely inside the arc (a point of emphasis for Markkanen), plus he has been the Wildcats’ leading rebounder.

And aside from his counting stats like points and rebounds — which are mightily impressive, seeing that Markkanen is the sixth freshman since 1992 to score 500+ points, grab 250+ boards, and make 50+ 3s — the Finn has impacted the game defensively, too.

Almost to the point one could argue he saved Arizona’s season.

In the first half in its Round of 32 win against Saint Mary’s, Arizona was getting eviscerated in the paint by Gaels 7-footer Jock Landale, who had a game-high 12 points in the first 20 minutes.

The Wildcats trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half, but a key adjustment allowed them to advance to the Sweet 16: Sean Miller put Markkanen on Landale.

Landale started the game 5-for-5 from the field, but finished the game 8-for-14.

“A big reason why we beat Saint Mary’s is because we shifted him to guarding Landale,” Miller said on Jim Rome’s radio show this week. “Lauri, two months ago probably wouldn’t be able to do that. But when called upon in the tournament he delivered.”

What Miller is referring to is Markkanen’s improvement as a defender. The freshman wasn’t a poor defender earlier in the season, but he also wasn’t a standout, either. He was just sort of there.

But recently, Markkanen has made noticeable strides, especially as a rim-protector. For instance, from the start of Pac-12 play against Cal on Dec. 30 to the Wildcats’ loss against the UCLA Bruins on Feb. 25, Markkanen recorded only three blocks in a 17-game span.

In the six games since that loss to UCLA, though? Markkanen has six blocks, two of which were recorded in Arizona’s win over Saint Mary’s.

“To Lauri’s credit, what he’s done a great job of is improve the other aspects of his game and that’s really helped our team,” Miller said.

“Same thing whether it be scoring around the basket, just being more comfortable inside the arc.”

Both Markkanen and Arizona have benefitted from the freshman being a willing learner, and not being someone who only wants to do things his way.

“He’s on the other side of the ledger,” Miller said. “He came here for the purpose of developing and being a part of American basketball and it’s been a godsend for us because not only is he a talented newcomer, but he’s also an incredible kid.

“And as he’s improved the other aspects of his game, our team has certainly followed.”

Now it’s a question of how much farther Markkanen can lead Arizona.

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire