Utah Jazz’s Lauri Markkanen scores 49 points vs. Rockets

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 131-114 win over the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Lauri Markkanen almost scored 50 points

Lauri Markkanen scored 49 points on Thursday night, the most any Jazz player has scored in the regular season since Karl Malone’s scoring prime in 1990.

But, Donovan Mitchell never scored 49 in the regular season, although he did in the playoffs. Neither did Deron Williams, or Gordon Hayward. Heck, even Malone himself didn’t score that many in the final 13 years of his career.

To be sure, it is a different NBA this season. More players are going for absurd numbers than ever before. We’ve seen Luka Doncic have 60 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists. We’ve seen Mitchell score 71 and add 11 assists, contribute more points to a team’s total than anyone since Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point performance. A whole lot of high numbers are happening.

And to me, what was fun about Markkanen’s performance was that nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It’s not like it was an outlier performance from deep: he shot 6-15 from the 3-point line, a whopping 40%. He can shoot that well pretty consistently. Maybe he won’t always hit every free-throw he takes, but he won’t be far off.

I think it’s worth taking a step back and appreciating what this means for the Jazz. Markkanen has proven that the Jazz already have one more All-Star than they thought they had. He’s under contract for two more seasons. I think he would very much entertain staying with the Jazz even once that contract is done — he likes it here, and is raising a young family and appreciates that aspect of Salt Lake City living. It’s legitimately feasible that Markkanen is here for the long haul.

More than that, his playing style is extremely flexible. Tonight’s a good example: 0 of his 49 points tonight came from isolation, in post-ups, or as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. None of this is Markkanen calling his own number. It’s all from the flow of the offense — catching spot ups, catching the ball as a screener, attacking in transition, or getting offensive rebounds.

What that means is that you can put any number of stars around him, and he should basically be able to continue to do this. Obviously, there’s a fine line there — you don’t want to neuter him like the Bulls did. But conceivably, Markkanen’s a very flexible piece in team-building if you can maintain this mentality.

So far, it’s just been a tremendous, career-changing season for Markkanen. Truth be told, it’s a franchise-trajectory changing season for the Jazz as well.

2. Zooming in on how Markkanen scored

Okay, but let’s get into the nitty-gritty. How is a player this successful?

I thought it was notable that almost all of his shots came from the left side or the middle of the floor tonight as well — Markkanen seems most comfortable there.

Markkanen’s shot chart vs. HOU. (NBA.com)

That high pick-and-roll with Mike Conley is just causing teams fits, because Markkanen can become either a roller or a screener — and they don’t have the personnel to guard both options at once. Like here, the Rockets try to guard him with a small dude, and Markkanen can just roll to the rim and finish.

But if you try to guard him with a big, the Jazz can run that same play, then have Markkanen naturally pop out to the outside — and bingo, he’s going to make shots from there, too.

The combination of two guys doesn’t work either.

Related to the above clip — it’s worth noting his free-throw boost. Markkanen had previously only taken over 10 free throws twice this season; he’s now taken 12, 15, and 13 in his last three games. His high release and quick shot is really causing problems for the shorter defenders who are trying to guard him — while the Jazz lost in the last five games before this, Markkanen’s ability to get to the free-throw line late got them back into three of those contests.

It’s just a personnel nightmare for other teams. Obviously, the Rockets are a bad defensive team, but there are only a handful of players in the league where you can’t say Markkanen has an obvious physical advantage in one way or another. (Giannis? AD?) And since he’s been able to figure out how to play certain counters against him, he’s taking advantage with frequency.

3. The 2021 NBA Draft class

I thought The Athletic’s John Hollinger had a great story today on some of the struggles this year’s sophomore class is having.

(I love Hollinger, by the way. His writing was a huge influence for me growing up, especially reading his Pro Basketball Prospectus books. I’ve only met him once, though. Despite Jazz front office worries to the contrary, I promise and assure you that during his tenure as Grizzlies assistant GM, he was not the source for my report that the Jazz tried to trade Ricky Rubio to the Grizzlies for Mike Conley back at the 2019 trade deadline.)

In particular: after having some spectacular rookie seasons, a lot of last year’s draft class is really struggling in year two. But. 1 Cade Cunningham doesn’t look special. Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes may have taken a step back, as defenses stopped respecting his 3-point shot. Evan Mobley’s part of a really good team, but hasn’t taken a leap. Davion Mitchell looks like a defense-only point guard. Jalen Suggs has been rough for his entire NBA career. Chris Duarte weirdly forgot how to make baskets completely. James Bouknight looked like a total bust from the moment he stepped on a court with an NBA team’s logo in the vicinity.

Two of the Rockets’ starters and premier players are sophomores too: Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun. Green is one of the league’s least efficient scorers — not quite 2023 Russell Westbrook bad, but close — while still getting nearly as many turnovers as assists. A classic player who just needs to slow down and figure out what the defense is doing a bit, somewhat like Collin Sexton. Sengun’s a little better: he’s an efficient interior offensive player, but the defensive worries of him in the Draft have proven valid.

To be honest, there’s a common tie here: it’s just yet another reminder that player improvement isn’t linear. Markkanen took his leap at age 25 in his 6th season. Almost the entire 2021 draft class hasn’t really taken any leaps in their second year, at least not yet.

There are error bars in our predictions of these players — who they are, and who they might become. Giving as many players as possible good developmental opportunities is a logical goal given the limits of our knowledge.

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