The EuroBasket group stage was all about Lauri Markkanen.
If there is a lot of pressure surrounding the Chicago Bulls rookie (who was part of the Jimmy Butler trade to Minnesota), you would never know it. The 20-year-old Finnish center made the EuroBasket court his own personal playground this week, playing in front of the home crowd in the group stage of the tournament.
Markkanen, the only NBA player on Finland’s roster, leads the team in points per game (22.6), rebounds (6.2) and efficiency (20) after the five games they’ve played so far. He’s averaging nearly ten points more per game than the rest of the team. Petteri Koponen and Sasu Salin are averaging 13.2 and 11.8 respectively.
The center was clutch from Game 1 of the tournament, scoring 22 points and building a personal highlight reel in an overtime thriller versus France.
Markkanen scored 24 points in the team’s only loss, their second game of the tournament, which came down to the last seconds and ended in an 81-78 loss to Goran Dragic and Slovenia (who were undefeated in the group). But aside from the L on the score sheet, there was also a scary moment for the team, as the 20-year-old limped off the court during the final play of the game. Luckily for Finland, and the Bulls, Markkanen was back for the next game and didn’t miss a beat.
The 7-foot rookie added another 27 points (and nine rebounds) against Poland, 17 points against Greece (his worst scoring performance of the tournament) and wrapped up the group stage with 23 points in 24 minutes in a comeback win against Iceland.
So far, only two other players in the entire tournament averaged more points per game than Markkanen: Goran Dragic and Dennis Schroder. Both Dragic and Schroder have years of experience on national teams and in the NBA. Thirty-one year-old Dragic has nine years of experience in the NBA and has played on the Slovenian national team for over a decade, including four EuroBasket tournaments (not including 2017). Schroder wrapped up his fourth season in the NBA and represented Germany at the 2015 EuroBasket.
While the two have better scoring averages, Markkanen has so far shot better than both Dragic and Schroder from 2- and 3-point range, shooting 55.1 percent from two and 50 percent from behind the arc, while making 89.7 percent of his free throws.
From the beginning Markkanen has been compared to Dirk Nowitzki, one of the greatest international players in the NBA. After Markkanen’s performance against Poland, his national team coach, Henrik Dettman, was asked about the similarities Nowitzki and Markkanen.
“I don’t need to say how special [he] is. You all see it when he plays. There’s something I’ve been saying for some time: It’s unfair to compare human beings with each other,” Dettman told reporters during the postgame press conference. “And we are talking about players from different areas. But there are many similar things in the game that Dirk and Lauri play.
“The only thing we don’t know is if Lauri has the same work ethic that Dirk has with the game. If Lauri has the same work ethic, and is healthy, he’ll definitely reach the same level that Dirk has. He has skills, speed, understanding for the game. It’s also natural.The new generation has to be better than the one of the past.”
Does he have the same worth ethic? And how will Markkanen’s success during the EuroBasket translate to the NBA court? We won’t try to make any predictions, especially considering the competition in the NBA is on a whole other level, but it seems Markkanen will play significant minutes in Chicago and Bulls fans have a reason to be excited.
Markkanen and Finland play their next game, in the Round of 16 against Italy, on Saturday at 11:45 am EST.
*Statistics used in this piece are from FIBA.