Through five games, the Utah Jazz are 4-1, tied for the best record in the West. They've shocked multiple playoff teams with their hot start. Leading the charge for Utah is Lauri Markkanen. The 25-year-old Finnish forward is averaging a career-high 22 points per game, with almost nine rebounds and three assists. The scariest part is that he hasn't been playing to the best of his abilities yet.
So the question now becomes, how much of this performance is sustainable? Five games are far too small of a sample size to draw too many conclusions from, but by looking at his entire career, there's a lot of data to use.
Lauri Markkanen has averaged 15.5 points per game over his young career, with his previous career-high being 18.7 ppg in his second season. That sophomore season was the only time Markkanen had a higher usage rate than he does this year. Combine the high usage with his career high in minutes per game, and you get more scoring opportunities each game. That's showing up in his field goal attempts, where he's taking 17.2 per game, a vast difference from his career average of 12.4.
The interesting thing about the Finnisher's scoring this year is his shooting percentages. Markkanen has yet been unable to find his outside shot, hitting only 24% from beyond the arc. He's a career 36% three-point shooter, so this is a significant cold start for him. Three-point shooting tends to have a lot of variance game-to-game, so this is a very normal thing to see. We should expect Markkanen's three to start falling more often.
Even with such poor outside shooting, Markkanen is still scoring with slightly above league average efficiency. The primary reason is that he is hitting over 64% of his two-point shots, a far better mark than his 52% career average. Granted, that number has gone up almost linearly from the beginning of his career, so improvement is not unexpected. Still, such a huge jump probably indicates an outlier of good finishing. When we dig a little deeper, we see that he's not taking any more shots from the restricted area than he usually has; he's just making them at a far better rate. Lauri's career field goal percentage on restricted area shots is 66%. This year, he's making 85%. To put that number into perspective, 85% would have ranked number two in the entire NBA last season among qualified players. In other words, this number is likely not sustainable. I'd expect his rim finishing to revert closer to his 68% mark from last season.
Adjusting for those expectations gives us a clearer picture. Markkanen's outside shooting should improve, while his interior finishing will likely regress. Depending on his shot distribution, these may even out his scoring somewhat, leaving him at a similar scoring number with a similar true shooting percentage.
Defense and Rebounding
Lauri Markkanen's defense is a bit of a mystery. The eye test shows that he puts in the effort to be a solid defender and has the physical tools. He can be disruptive and shows good habits as a help-side rim protector. The numbers, however, show the need for improvement. Markkanen's ranks in various defensive metrics are average at best and looking very similar this year.
Markkanen's rebounding has been in line with his career performance so far. The encouraging trend when it comes to his rebounding, though, is his ability to rebound while not playing the center position. Lauri's best rebounding seasons were his first two NBA seasons, in which he played exclusively at the 4 and 5 positions. As his career has gone on, he began to play more time at the 3, which made rebounding more difficult. This year, he's playing 59% of his minutes at the three but still managing good rebounding numbers. This is primarily because of his offensive rebounding. Coach Will Hardy has been preaching about the blessings of offensive boards because the Jazz are working for them. Markkanen is no exception. His offensive rebound percentage is about twice his number from the last two seasons.
Defense is the part of basketball that's most difficult to quantify. However, the most sustainable aspect of defense is individual players' effort. Markkanen is putting in the effort, so we can hope for statistical improvements as he continues to develop.
The biggest surprise of Markkanen's hot start to the season has to be his passing. He's averaging three assists per game, good for fourth on the team. His assist percentage is currently 13.6%. Both of those numbers are career-highs by a wide margin. Will Hardy's offense includes a lot of player movement and sharing the ball, which has shown up in the team's assist numbers. The Utah Jazz are averaging 29.2 assists per game as a team, the second most in franchise history and the most since 1987.
Markkanen's passing is not going to blow anybody away. He's not a Nikola Jokic out there, but he's shown the ability and the willingness to make the right pass. His capability to grab a rebound and immediately take the ball up the court creates a lot of chances for him to create for teammates.
It's hard to predict just how sustainable this is for Markkanen. Such an assist number for the team seems too high to maintain, but a dedication to sharing the ball can be contagious. If the team keeps passing, that will help all of the players.
If Markkanen can sustain this type of production, he'll have to be in consideration for an All-Star selection. Utah's record will have a significant impact on those chances, though. If Utah begins to lose as many predicted they would, he won't have a shot. If they can keep themselves near or above .500, Lauri Markkanen may make his first All-Star team.