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From Among the Busts to Among the Best

Analyzing Lauri Markkanen’s Surprising Season

NBA: Utah Jazz at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

When the Donovan Mitchell trade news dropped last summer, Lauri Markkanen was mentioned as an afterthought. The headliners as far as the Jazz were concerned were the picks and Colin Sexton. Back in mid-September, our very own James Hansen and Calvin Chapell mused that he might turn into a star, but nobody seriously expected that he would be an All-Star starter. At this point, everyone knows that Lauri is more than a flash in the pan, and that he is having an incredible year. But what is different about this year compared to his other five seasons in the NBA? Why did he catch fire now? Charting his made field goals over the years can help make sense of it all. I mapped it all out by scraping using python, converting the raw data into .csv files, and dumping it all into QGIS.

Finnishing Dunks

First, let’s look at dunks. Each data point shows where Lauri took off. These are his dunks from 2018-2019, arguably his best year besides the current campaign:

Notice how clustered around the basket these dunks are. Only one starts near the top of the restricted area, and one begins outside the restricted area. I could add charts from his other non-Jazz seasons, but they all basically look like this. Here are his dunks through 51 games this season:

The differences here are striking. Not only is there a higher volume of dunks, but they begin all over the restricted area, with 3 falling decidedly outside. We already knew simply by watching that coach Will Hardy is giving the Finnisher more freedom to create his own shot, and this data confirms it.

Upper Paint and Midrange

In the next set of charts, I filtered for shots 8-24 feet from the basket. The conventional wisdom is that Bulls Coach Fred Hoiberg took away Markkanen’s ability to post up and shoot away from the basket and inside the arc, instead relegating him to being primarily a three-point specialist. Let’s see if the charts bear that out. We’ll look at the 2020-2021 season, because that’s the year he was benched. Here are all of his made baskets from 8-24 feet out through 51 games: (which was his entire season)

If you look hard enough, I’m pretty sure there’s a tumbleweed blowing through here. Lauri only made three true midrange shots in 51 games this season. Three. Here are his made shots from 2019-2021, which don’t paint a much better picture: (19-20 in pink, 20-21 in red)

He did start to get his mojo back in Cleveland:

What’s really striking is overlaying his shot chart from this season onto the previous three:

There is a reason why he is being compared to Dirk Nowitzki this season, when in the previous season he was called a bust. The ability was likely there, but Coaches Hoiberg and Bickerstaff didn’t see it. Coach Hardy did, and, as I said before, is allowing Lauri to create his own shots rather than relegating him to spot-up duty.

The Young Man and the Three

The most consistent aspect of Lauri’s game has always been his three-point shot. Even in his worst seasons, he has been dangerous from deep. His previous season-high for made threes was 145, which was his rookie season, in which he played 68 games. This year he made 159 through 51.

Here is his 3PT chart through 51 games from his rookie season:

In his rookie campaign he favored his right side above the break in the elbow-ish area. Not a bad place to shoot from, to be sure, but check out his chart from this season:

Not only is he making more shots, but he is making them from more spots, which makes him more dangerous. Additionally, he has developed a killer right-corner three, a shot which he hadn’t had nearly as much success with in previous seasons.

Putting it All Together

Here are all of Lauri’s made buckets through 51 games this year:

As we all know, Lauri has had a breakout season. He can shoot threes, he’s a menace in the post, and opponents have to respect his mid-range game. He is an All-Star. He still has some work to do, though. What jumps out from the heat map is that he makes most of his buckets from the right side. With fewer offensive threats on the team, look for opposing coaches to double him the right corner and do everything possible to generally force him to his left. Finding success going left, I believe, is Lauri’s next step, which will make him even deadlier, and open up the floor that much more for the Jazz.

Lauri Markkanen has been a welcome surprise in a season that most thought would have few happy moments. Whether the Jazz make the playoffs or not, it has been a joy to watch him morph from bust to NBA All-Star.