Utah’s Lauri Markkanen — Most Improved Player “Non-Primary Target” Award

ORLANDO, Fla. — Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen is having the type of season he always knew was possible.

Markkanen, who earned his first All-Star nod this year, scored 31 points and hit the big shot in Thursday’s 131-124 win over the Orlando Magic, continuing a stellar season that has him poised to win Most Improved Player of the NBA. prize.

“Having that confidence, being in the right system, with the right teammates, I think it’s just — keep working and I guess meet preparation opportunity, right?” Markkanen told ESPN later.

But as Markkanen, 25, closes out his best season to date, he tries to keep his focus on the future. While he hopes to win the MVP award, he also wants the Jazz to continue to improve as a team. Thursday’s win improved Utah to 32-35, leaving the Jazz a half-game out of the final play-in spot in the West.

“That’s some extra motivation, but I don’t really think about it,” Markkanen, a sixth-year player, said of the award. “I talked about the responsibility and I enjoy the challenge, and if those individual goals happen, if we keep winning games and I keep doing my thing. I’m going every day to keep working, and I hope that happens, but we’ll see. Just try to pick up those wins and go from there, but obviously it would be a nice trophy to have at home, but that’s not the main focus at the moment.”

The main goal for Markkanen is to improve a game that seems to be getting better every night. Jazz coach Will Hardy noted before Thursday’s win that he still sees plenty of “room to grow” as Markkanen’s confidence grows, adding, “I don’t know if we’re close to the ceiling yet.”

For Markkanen, last summer’s Utah trade that brought former Jazz star Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers has yielded immediate benefits for a player finally living up to the potential many saw in him as the Chicago Bulls’ No. 7 pick in the 2017 draft. He is averaging 25.5 points on 51.3% shooting from the field, easily surpassing his previous career bests of 18.7 points and 48% shooting, both in Chicago.

But as Markkanen’s reputation in the league has grown, he hasn’t lost his appreciation for what got him to this point. The Bulls always believed he could become that type of player, but he was very inconsistent early in his career. That led to him being dealt to the Cavs in a three-team sign-and-trade in August 2021.

Markkanen was asked if he ever looks back and wishes his previous two teams hadn’t given up on him.

“You can always look back,” he said. “I think that was the goal for everyone to stay with one team for your whole career, but that doesn’t happen very often anymore. The way things went, I might not have been the same player that I am today. I was playing 4 [in Chicago]. I went to Cleveland, played the 3. Obviously, the team worked on my body so I was able to play the 3. Now we’re playing a big lineup, so I think things clicked.

“So I have no bad feelings [my previous teams]. They used me for the best for them and I wasn’t the same player I am today. I wasn’t that in Chicago. No ill feelings towards them. It’s always fun to come back and talk to the kids.”

Markkanen is quick to point to his Jazz teammates as well as Hardy and his coaching staff when asked why he clicked so well in Utah after stints with the Bulls and Cavaliers.

“Confidence is obviously good, but being in the right spot, being with the right coaching staff, the right system, just using me to my strengths I would say,” Markkanen said, noting that Hardy “empowers” him. this season.

Hardy said he has seen growth in Markkanen’s mental game while describing his overall improvement this season, saying Markkanen has “evolved into the mindset of an elite man.” Hardy said he appreciated how Markkanen continued to evolve in his approach, acknowledging that “it’s incredibly difficult” to make the step up to being the main man on a team.

“That’s a lot of pressure every night,” Hardy said. “That’s a different mindset you have to have. He understands that his approach is just as important as converting plays on the field because he’s the leader of the team and the rest of the guys follow him. I was just very proud of the way he he approached every game as the season went on as he kind of came into the forefront of our group.”

Markkanen was quick to smile when asked about the difference between being the guy counted on to make a big shot and being the guy counted on to make a big shot every night.

“I think I’m getting more and more comfortable in those situations,” he said. “The only way to get them is through replays, really. Sometimes you miss them, sometimes you make them. I think you’re just trying to get better and hit your spots. So it’s nice.

Markkanen added:[Hardy has] he challenged me to do it and I try to own that responsibility. It doesn’t always mean I shoot it, but I just make the right play. I think that’s the biggest thing. Even if it’s a shot or if it’s a pass or whatever, just try to get involved and knowing that the defense is going to collapse if I drive. So I enjoy the challenge.”

Markkanen said he would have felt good about making the All-Star team earlier in his career rather than as a sixth-year pro on his third team, but that he recognizes “not all stories are the same.”

“I also appreciate the moments of relaxation,” he said. “I think that’s why I’m the player that I am today, the person that I am today, really. Because I was really in a dark place mentally sometimes just because I had high expectations of myself and I wasn’t playing. So I think that just remembering the tough times makes you appreciate the All-Star nod. Having the opportunity to be the guy at the end of games, you appreciate that after going through tougher times.”

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