The Nordic countries in the northern portion of Europe are among the few regions left around the world that haven’t yet had an influx of professional basketball talent to America.
Finland’s Lauri Markkanen is trying to change that.
Due to its cold weather, Finland devotes most of its resources to the development of hockey programs or other winter sports. Because of that, there has only been one Finnish-born player in the NBA’s history (Hanno Möttölä, who played for Atlanta from 2000-02).
But that hasn’t deterred Markkanen, who will pass on playing professionally next season and instead likely head to North Carolina, Arizona, or Utah. The 6-11, 220-pound 18-year-old developed his game despite the ice and snow in his native country.
“I would shoot and work on my game in my back yard even though it was minus-30 (degrees celsius).”
“I didn’t have a chance to go to an inside court,” he said. “It’s not bad if you’re wearing a lot of clothes.”
Such is life in northern European counties, where if one wants to improve at basketball when young, they have to go outside and do their thing in temperatures that would have most high schools or colleges canceling class due to the frigid temperatures.
Markkanen, currently in the United States visiting the three aforementioned schools, is like many basketball prodigies. Attending the Helsinki Basketball Academy, his life is a bit more focused on the game than elite prospects in the states. For instance, a typical day involves both a morning and an afternoon session of basketball, plus his team competes in the second division of Finnish basketball against other professionals. But mostly, he’s still just a quiet kid that’s singularly focused on achieving the best possible career for himself.
“His work ethic and ability to learn are the main things,” said Antti Koskelainen, head coach at the Helsinki Basketball Academy. “He’s a quick learner, very coachable. Hard-working guy.”
Markkanen is one of those stretch-4s that the NBA is looking for all around the world. He can score from all over the floor — including from 3 — get out in transition, and also defend. Just watch what he did this summer at the U18 European Championships, where he averaged 18.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on 53.9 percent shooting from the field and 41 percent shooting from byond the 3-point line.
“He is a highly-skilled 4 man who has the ability to make open 3s from the international line, drive from the 3-point line, but also post up and throw in a jump hook,” said an NCAA assistant who recruits regularly in Europe. “I don’t think he’ll have any problem playing right away and making an impact at a high Division I level.”
The only place that he could have a problem is with the physicality of the game, and that’s something he readily admits that he needs to improve upon.
“I shoot well and run the court,” Markkanen said. “But I need to improve on my rebounding. It’s a lot better than a year ago when I came to (Helsinki), but I’m not satisfied yet. Just about getting repetitions and in five-on-five we focus on my rebounding.”
“Where he needs to improve is he needs to gain strength. He can be a little bit bigger,” Koskelainen said about his star player. “For his size, he’s a good ball-handler, good passer, and he understands the game pretty well. What he needs to learn and develop though is his rebounding skills. He can physically be a better rebounder. He needs to establish his post up game, and be more solid there.”
That high Division I level is where he’s inevitably headed. We’ll get to his thoughts on those programs eventually. But to understand where he might end up, you have to go back and find where he’s been.
Markkanen was born to be an athlete. His father is Pekka Markkanen, a 6-10 center himself who played for many years on the Finnish national team after a collegiate career at Kansas. His mother, Riikka, was also a basketball player. He has two older brothers that he grew up with in Jyväskylä, about three hours north of where he currently plays in Helsinki. One, Miikka, was a professional basketball player until injuries derailed his career. Another, Eero, is a professional soccer player that played with Real Madrid’s B team last season. With that kind of pedigree, it comes as no surprise that athletic contests in the house were intense.
“We had a very competitive family, always challenging each other in everything,” Markkanen said. “We played basketball, soccer, ice hockey, everything. No one wanted to lose.”
Pekka was KU’s starting center in the 1989-1990 season. He averaged 6.9 points and 3.9 rebounds per game as the best defensive big man on a 30-5 team that fell in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He left after that single season to return home to Finland. He was already married at the time, and decided to get his professional life started. About 15 months after his departure, Lauri’s brother Eero was born.
“He was a real good player,” Markkanen’s assistant coach and former NBA player Möttölä said. “Roy Williams repeated to me last week that he’s the best post defender that he ever coached. Going to Kansas and starting every game, his dad was clearly a big time player. Unfortunately for his pro career, he was probably about 10 years too early before the European market opened up and players were able to move more freely to carve out a nice career. If he was a little younger he would have really made himself a big time player in Europe.”
Möttölä is another famous advisory figure in Markkanen’s life. After all, he is the first and still only Finnish-born player in the NBA’s history. After attending Utah for four years under Rick Majerus — don’t worry Tar Heel and Wildcat fans, he’s not pushing Markkanen to his alma mater — Möttölä played as a solid rotation player for the Hawks for a couple of years before heading back overseas. He humbly says that “was a long time ago” when you ask him about it now, and he considers what he does now as a coach at the Academy mentoring young athletes much more important than what he did then.
He’s one of the people that plays an integral role in Markkanen’s development.
“I was taught the game of basketball by the most detail-oriented coach of possibly the last 30 to 40 years,” Möttölä says about his background learning from the late Majerus. “I love teaching these guys technique as opposed to just telling them to shoot 20 shots off of down screens. We hope to develop polished players, and we hope that when other coaches look at Finnish kids in our Academy they see that footwork and shot mechanics and everything else are very polished for their ages. The coaches don’t make the players. They make themselves. But we are responsible for them, and we hope not to screw them up.”
That attention to detail is obviously something that has come through to Markkanen.
“Off the court, he tells me about his experiences and what it’s like to play in college and what it’s like to study there,” Markkanen says. “On the court, it’s the same thing. He prepares me and teaches me how to focus on the details.”
College coaches can expect to see attention to detail from Markkanen. But the idea of a collegiate career for an elite European prospect does raise plenty of questions. As in, is this just one of many options he’s considering — a la Georgios Papagiannis last season who eventually ended up signing a long-term deal with Greek power Panathinaikos — or will he definitively be here next season?
“I’m going,” Markkanen said when asked about his collegiate plans. “My dad has told me about his experiences as a basketball player. When I was 14, I started to think I would like to go to college. I think it’s the right way to go. He told me it can be exhausting physically and mentally, but it’s worth it.”
Möttölä concurs that playing in college is a great experience for Finnish basketball players.
“I was offered a 10-year contract in Spain before I went to the University of Utah,” Möttölä said. “I had the option. But looking back, I would not change the best four years out of my life.”
So looking forward, what does he like about each of the schools he’s considering?
“I like what I see. I’ve seen pictures of their campus, so I’d like to see what happens.
“It’s a good school. And of course, North Carolina has a pretty good reputation.”
“Same things as North Carolina. It’s a school that’s very big in basketball. I know they have a good program.”
College basketball fans wait on this prodigious talent to choose his school. The NBA awaits as well, as he’s considered one of the best prospects in his age group and a potential future first round pick.
But for now, Markkanen will be happy to continue his typical life, as he says that he feels absolutely no pressure regarding his college decision or his potential career. He’ll keep working hard, keeping going to class, and, like most 18-year-olds, keep finding some down time to play Call of Duty when he gets a chance.
After all, he is still just a kid, even if he is one of the best teenage basketball players in a part of Europe not known for the sport.