When Lauri Markkanen was 10 years old, his father Pekka kept a diary to chart how many hours his son was on the basketball court.
“He was practicing something like four and a half hours a day,” Pekka recalls. “He was playing a lot.”
Lauri practiced with and against his father, as well as his two older brothers, Eero and Miikka.
They didn’t go easy on him.
“He always lost against his older brothers, so maybe that’s why his feet are well on the ground right now,” Pekka said.
Evidently so, as nine years later Lauri is heading to the NBA, choosing to declare for the NBA Draft after just one year with the Arizona Wildcats.
“I’m very excited and looking forward to it,” said Lauri, exactly one week after playing his final college game. “It’s a big challenge for me and I think I’m ready to go and do my best.”
Lauri said playing in the NBA has always been a dream of his, and that’s not surprising to anybody that knows him.
“He’s so special,” Pekka said. “Whatever he does, he only thinks about basketball. Sometimes I get tired of that. ... [It’s like] ‘can we talk about something else?’”
But, to Lauri, there is nothing else.
When asked in December what he would be doing if he wasn’t a basketball player, Lauri had no idea.
“I’ve been trying to think about that,” he said. “But there’s really nothing that interested me.”
His health even takes a backseat to basketball.
Once, Lauri was in the emergency room four hours before he was scheduled to play, but it didn’t deter him from taking the court.
He didn’t tell his dad though.
“I didn’t know,” Pekka said. “But he’s lucky because I got so mad.”
At Arizona, Lauri battled through illness and injury, but played in all 37 games for the Wildcats and only missed one practice.
A practice “which we decided ahead of time for him to sit out,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said.
Simply, basketball is Markkanen’s life and, like his Twitter bio states, he’s “just trying to improve [his] game every single day.”
“His love of the game, his work ethic, and how he handled himself, if every situation was like this it would be too easy,” Miller said. “He gave us his heart and his soul. He also gave us his talent and the season he had speaks for itself.”
Indeed. Lauri’s combination of talent, size, and an unrelenting work ethic allowed him to produce a seemingly unprecedented freshman season at Arizona.
Lauri averaged 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds, finishing tied for second in program history in points scored by a freshman, third in rebounding, third in made 3s, third in made free throws, and fourth in free throw percentage.
He was also a third-team All-American, a member of the Pac-12 All-First-Team, and possibly the greatest shooting 7-footer the college game has ever seen.
“If you think about this,” Miller said, “you can make the argument that he had the greatest year in history of our program ... for every freshman that’s been here.”
It’s why Lauri is projected to be a top-10 pick in June and just the second Finn to ever be selected in the NBA Draft. It’s why everywhere Pekka goes in Finland, there’s a “big hype” surrounding Lauri.
It’s why Arizona finished 32-5 and won the Pac-12 Championship and Pac-12 Conference Tournament, despite being thumped by adversity.
It’s also why it’s time for Lauri to say goodbye to Tucson.
“When a decision like this is made and it’s made for the right reasons for a bright future, I think we all feel really good,” Miller said. “I 100 percent support his decision. I think it’s the right decision, he’s going to be an incredibly high pick in this year’s NBA Draft. That’s not my opinion, that’s the feedback that all of us have received.
“With that, it’s time for him to reach his goals and dreams.”
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire