by John Hooper
I expected to watch Kobi Simmons and Allonzo Trier power the Cats to one of the top spots in the Pac-12 this season, only to see someone named Lauri Markkanen carrying them to win after win to start the season. After seeing Markannen's name pop in the boxscore a handful of times, I decided to do a deeper dive on who he was and came away more than intrigued to learn that he was a 7'0" freshman who could light it up from deep. I pegged him early on as an elite prospect since a young player who was that tall and could shoot that well would certainly be in high demand come June.
Since piquing my interest early in the year, Markkanen continued his stellar season and shot up draft boards accordingly. However, as I continued to evaluate him as a prospect, a few signs came up that were troubling in projecting him as an NBA player.
The first and most obvious concern about how Markkanen will translate into the league is his defensive limitations. Amongst the 148 power forwards and centers in our database, Markkanen ranked 144th in relative defensive rating with a -2.4 mark. He also ranked 138th in blocks per 100 possessions and 136th in steals per 100 possessions... so, yeah. Not pretty. To make matter worse, Markkanen is also a subpar rebounder. He averaged 13.9 rebounds per 100 possessions, a number significantly below the median of 16.4 across all bigs in the database.
If we go to the other side of the court where he makes his hay, Markkanen graded out at a solid if unspectacular 73.8 in scoring potential in the algorithm. He did post a strong true shooting percentage of 63.5% this year (ranking 22nd), but he did not show the aggressiveness (95th in usage rate) nor the craftiness to get easy points at the line (55th in free throw makes per 100 possessions) that will make him a go-to guy at the next level.
Where he projects very well is exactly where you'd expect, shooting, with an 89.4 grade, good enough for the top spot amongst bigs in our algorithm. His shooting also had a powerful gravity for the Cats this year, shown by his absurd +20.3 relative offensive rating, which was 7th across all bigs. He's not one to rack up many assists, but he also doesn't turn the over often (8th in fewest turnovers per 100 possessions) which is another key aspect of his net positive impact on the offensive end.
So what does this all mean? First, we can rule out the lofty Dirk comparisons that some have made since Markkanen simply doesn't show the potential to be an elite scorer. We can also rule out any Porzingis comps since Markkanen can't rebound or protect the rim the same way that Kristaps does. Ryan Anderson is a common projection as a another three-point specialist at the four, but Anderson is two to three inches smaller than Markkanen, depending on what listings you're using.
Andrea Bargnani has turned into a dirty word in NBA circles but I wonder what opinions on him would be if he was selected fifteenth overall instead of number one. Markkanen feels destined for a similar career as Bargs - lifetime averages of 14/5/1 and a niche role as a one-dimensional stretch five. That's a fine pick for a team in the 12-16 range, but he may end up in an uphill battle if an early lottery team falls in love with him this year.