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Former Arizona stars Lauri Markkanen, Benn Mathurin surging in early weeks of NBA season

lauri-markkanen-benn-mathurin-strong-starts-nba-2022-23-season-arizona-wildcats-basketball Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Wednesday’s slate of NBA games produced an ordinary list of high-scoring performances.

14 players reached 30 or more points, among them a trio of three-time All Stars (Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum), the 2022 Most Improved Player (Ja Morant), and a four-time MVP (LeBron James).

Of the 14 players to break 30 points, only three did so on fewer than 20 field goal attempts. One was Boston shooting guard Jaylen Brown, who is coming off a dominant 2022 Playoff run that established him as one of the game’s elite young scorers.

The other two?

Well, that would be Arizona’s own Lauri Markkanen and Bennedict Mathurin.

Markkanen scored a season-high 32 in Utah’s win over Atlanta, going 9 of 18 from the floor including 6 of 8 from 3-point range. Markkanen also had eight rebounds and was a perfect 8 for 8 from the stripe.

Indiana’s Mathurin scored 30 points off the bench in a tight loss to Denver (who incidentally was led by Aaron Gordon’s 18-point, 16-rebound double-double.) Like Markkanen, Mathurin connected on a half-dozen 3-pointers.

What’s most extraordinary about each player’s performance Wednesday is that their scoring outbursts are less a deviation and more the norm through the first three weeks of the NBA season.

Markkanen (22.7 PPG, 8.8 RPG) has emerged as the centerpiece for a Jazz offense that leads the NBA in scoring. The 25-year old was part of a blockbuster summer trade that sent Donovan Mitchell to Cleveland. Utah received Markkanen as well as Collin Sexton and Ochai Agbaji.

When Jazz CEO Danny Ainge traded for Markkanen, he couldn’t have imagined the Finnish native would begin the 2022-23 season putting up All-Star-like numbers. Markkanen’s scoring numbers dropped considerably in his last two years with the Chicago Bulls, hampered by a string of injuries.

Markkanen was traded to Cleveland ahead of the 2021-22 season and never found his shooting with the Cavaliers. His 35.8 percent clip from 3-point range last season was worse than his rookie year.

Markkanen clearly was in search of confidence this summer, and he found it competing for Finland at FIBA EuroBasket. He finished second in scoring at the 24-team event with 27.9 PPG, trailing only Giannis Antetokounmpo. Markkanen also set a Finnish national team scoring record with a 43-point game against Croatia.

Coincidentally, Markkanen was traded to Utah the day before EuroBasket. The experience overseas showed him he was ready to carry an NBA team.

“It showed I can do multiple things on the floor on both ends, so it built my confidence back up,” he told

Markkanen has five double-doubles through 13 games, as many as he had in the past two seasons combined, a stat shared by Jazz reporter Eric Walden.

Markkanen’s scoring confidence was on display Wednesday, whether attacking the bucket, fighting for a board, or calmly nailing a deep three.

Markkanen leading the first-place Jazz in scoring and rebounding is one of the most pleasant surprises of this young NBA season. The betting markets are catching up, with Markkanen now listed at +450 to win NBA’s Most Improved Player according to DraftKings Sportsbook.

Another surprise (though not to followers of Arizona basketball) has been Mathurin’s ascendancy to the top of the 2022 NBA rookie class.

Despite coming off the bench every game, Mathurin is averaging 20.4 PPG. He is the only player in the NBA averaging 18 or more points in fewer than 30 minutes, per Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report.

Mathurin is as consistent as he is effective. He’s scored at least 15 points in nine of Indiana’s first 11 games, and in seven of those games he’s shot 46% or better from the field.

Mathurin is known for being ultra-assertive, but in college his perimeter shooting efficiency didn’t always warrant a green light from deep. As a sophomore at Arizona, Mathurin attempted 1.5 times as many 3s than as a freshman even though his 3-point percentage dropped from 41.8% to 36.9%.

Mathurin cleaned up his 3-point jumper this summer. He’s shooting 43.7 percent from the perimeter on 6.5 attempts per game. Nearly half of Mathurin’s field goal attempts (71/150) have come from 3-point range.

When Mathurin attacks the paint, he’s often rewarded at the charity stripe, where he’s making 84.6 percent of free throws, second-best among all rookies.

Mathurin’s only true weakness so far is turnovers. He’s averaging more of those (2.5) than assists (2.2) per game. The Pacers seem content with the occasional errant pass or strip if it means Mathurin continues playing with his singular assertiveness.

By now it’s well-established that Mathurin and Orlando’s Paolo Banchero are atop the Rookie of the Year race.

Mathurin’s odds to win Rookie of the Year have actually dropped slightly from +550 at the beginning of the season to +600 on DraftKings, the byproduct of Banchero’s stellar start.

Mathurin’s numbers are all the more impressive because he’s come off the bench, whereas Banchero has started each game.

The debates over Most Improved Player and Rookie of the Year will rage on the deeper the season goes. If Markkanen and Mathurin can sustain their tremendous starts, they’ll be right there in the mix.

More significant for Arizona basketball is that two alums are excelling at the sport’s highest level, something the UA couldn’t say since Gilbert Arenas and Andre Iguodala were at their prime in the 2000s.

For a program regaining its identity under a new head coach, Arizona only stands to benefit from the rise of Makkaren and Mathurin in the NBA.