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Lauri Markkanen’s new season focus

Utah’s versatile, 7 foot forward Lauri Markkanen has demonstrated a new focus early in his seventh season and it’s paying dividends

Utah Jazz v Phoenix Suns
Lauri Markkanen spots up for one of his 5 made three point shots against the Phoenix Suns
Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Lauri Markkanen famously spent his offseason fulfilling his military service obligation to Finland. But basketball was featured plenty around traditional training. He also resumed his place as leader of the Finnish national team during the FIBA tournament.

Often a busy summer can translate to a slow start as the NBA season gets underway. But Lauri appears to have emboldened by such an active, demanding summer.

In his first five games, he’s led the 2-3 Jazz with 23.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists on +7.8% adjusted true shooting.

But it’s not the exact same “Marksman” we saw last year for the Utah Jazz. His hot start is best described with a new focus on bombing from deep. Let’s dig into what exactly is different this year and how much it can be trusted.

More three point attempts

The best 3P shooters in the NBA aren’t those who have the highest percentage, but those who take a lot on a good percentage. Stephen Curry, the greatest 3P shooter ever, has averaged 12.5 3PA per 75 possessions, hitting on just over 41% of them.

Sacramento Kings v Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry didn’t become the greatest shooter ever by just good results—he had the best process to accompany extraordinary talent.
Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Lauri Markkanen ended last season attempting 8.0 threes per 75 possessions. That ranked 40th of 349 players with more than 41 games logged last season. That’s pretty stellar, and if you limit to forwards and centers, he climbs into the top 15.

But Lauri and the coaching staff clearly felt there was more to plumb from his shooting skillset. He’s come into this season averaging 10.1 threes per 75 possessions in the first 5 games. That’s a 25% increase!

We’ve already seen two games with 13 attempts from three, against the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers. He matched or exceeded that number just three times last year.

Now, we must be careful in extrapolating the first five games to that of a whole season, where good and bad stretches balance out as variance descends. However, if we look at 5 game stretches from last year, there’s actually a fair amount of evidence this is a real change.

There were only 9 stretches last year (13% of all 5 game stretches) where Lauri exceeded 45 attempts, his total so far this season. If we look at unique stretches (don’t count those that overlap each other), there were only 3. It’s possible Lauri is the same shooter, but the probability is becoming increasingly low.

10 threes per 75 possessions would have ranked in the top 10 last season and trailed only two other forward/centers. That’s rarified air, especially when considering how efficient he’s become.

Better and better threes

In a breakout season that saw Lauri Markkanen jump from role player to All-Star and be awarded the NBA’s Most Improved Player, much of that jump can be attributed to volume. More minutes, more shots, more rebounds, etc. But what was truly incredible was doing so while boosting his efficiency from +1.6% adjust true shooting to +5.9%.

Much of that was thanks to 39% shooting from deep. Prior to arriving in Utah, he was a 36% shooter so such a leap was tremendous progress. And he’s taking it to another level by getter better and better threes.

Lauri is shooting a blistering 46.7% from beyond the arc to kick off his 7th campaign. Impressive, but again, we have to compare to similar 5 game stretches from last season. He bested this number 20 times last year but only on 39 attempts (median).

The real kicker is the types of shots continue to support the idea that he’s an improved shooter from last year:

3PA rate by location graphic
Summary of Lauri Markkanen’s 3PA rate by location (2022 vs 2023)
Stats via | Designed by Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

Lauri’s increase in threes is coming in the corner, specifically from the right side. Traditionally, the corners are far more efficient than above the break, for a variety of reasons. Last year, for example, the median success rate from the corner was 38.5% vs 35.4% from straight away.

3PA rate by situation graphic
Summary of Lauri Markkanen’s 3PA rate by situation (2022 vs 2023)
Stats via | Designed by Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

The additional shots are also coming via catch and shoot situations as opposed to pullup or “off the dribble”. Lauri’s game isn’t defined by his ability to create for himself. Rather, he thrives on leveraging his size and skill to punish even the smallest advantage off the pass.

3PA rate by seconds to shoot graphic
Summary of Lauri Markkanen’s 3PA rate by seconds to shoot (2022 vs 2023)
Stats via | Designed by Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

Lauri’s also pulling the trigger far quicker than last year. This matches the eye test! He isn’t pausing to read the defense or derive a plan. He’s being very instinctual and free flowing, to great success.

3PA rate by coverage graphic
Summary of Lauri Markkanen’s 3PA rate by coverage (2022 vs 2023)
Stats via | Designed by Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

The Jazz offensive sets compliment Lauri’s size and fluidity well, affording him more and more opportunities to get open.

It’s still really early and even 5 attempts from 3 could shift these numbers around. However, the evidence is mounting to suggest Lauri’s new season focus is pushing the right buttons for success.

Peripheral effects

A natural byproduct of attempting more threes is that one’s free throw attempt rate drops. Lauri’s 6.3 FTAs per 75 possessions provided a tremendously valuable floor to his game. Even on off nights, those free throws hit at 88% really helped the team.

This season, he’s dropped to just 3.8 FTAs per 75 possessions but draining a scorching 94%. The three won’t continue to fall this spectacularly. A rough stretch is on its way and when it does, a great approach is get to the line.

Teams will start being very aggressive in running Lauri off the line or overplaying him on the pass. He can use such aggression to his advantage by forcing contact and getting to the line.

Back to Stephen Curry, as he increased his 3PA rate, his FTA rate miraculously increased as well. He’s settled into a nuclear rhythm of 60% of his shots as 3’s and 25% of his shots as free throws. Any step Lauri can take to balance the two facets will accentuate his ascension into the league’s star echelon.

Markkanen also made waves last year as being the first player since a young Kevin Durant to bury 200 threes and throw down 100 dunks in a season. This made him the real basketball equivalent of a unicorn!

But in shooting more threes, action at the rim often diminishes. So far, in 5 games, dunks account for just 6% of his attempts. Contrast that to 11% last year. Layups are less dramatic difference at 21% this year and 23% the previous.

This is another way to punish overly aggressive defenses: punish them with cuts and backdoor flashes. The unfortunate reality of the ‘23-’24 Jazz, however, is their lack of passing talent. There may only be so much he can recover of last year’s success in this area.

Lauri is legitimately becoming one of the best shooters in the NBA. Last season, only 14 players took the floor in 41+ games, took 8+ threes per 75 possessions, and hit on 39%+ of them. In combination with all else he does on the glass, at the rim, on defensive, and as a leader, the only players really in his class as an impact shooter are the Splash Brothers.

Lauri’s new focus this year from beyond the arc is seeing tremendous success. As defenses look to adjust, he’ll have to be mindful of how to use other parts of his game from last year to deliver an effective counter.

All signs point to Lauri picking right up where he left off last year. He said himself his new standard is being an All-Star and he’s certainly on his way so far. Boy are we lucky to have the best “Finnisher” in all of basketball.