SPORTS

Lauri Markkanen comes to light against Washington State after early February slump

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Dean Hare | Washington State University Photo Services

Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen, right, blocks the layup attempt of Washington State guard Ike Iroegbu during the first half of the game on Feb. 16 in Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, Washington.

When Arizona freshman forward Lauri Markkanen first came to the United States from Finland, he had to adapt to a different style of basketball, and he did. Night after night, double-figures in points here, double-double there and never once did it appear that Markkanen would hit a wall.

Not only did Markkanen hit a wall in the past four games, he fell back on his butt and appeared to be down for the count.

Arizona head coach Sean Miller always said that freshmen have a tendency to have extremely high peaks and rock bottom valleys, which tends to bring down their confidence.

Hitting the freshman wall has occurred with every five-star Arizona freshman. Aaron Gordon and Stanley Johnson were victims, but at different times of the season. Those two dealt with their struggles at the beginning of the season and hit their stride once Pac-12 play began. Markkanen on the other hand, thrived from day one and struggled at points in the season where Johnson and Gordon succeeded.

Before Markkanen’s slump began on the road against the Oregon schools, every single game except Arizona’s 79-60 blowout win over Missouri on the road he had scored in double-figures.

With a highly touted NBA Draft prospect in Markkanen, falling off the map seemed out of sorts and left many to wonder what was the reasoning? Was it Allonzo Trier returning to the lineup or were teams keying on his abilities to catch fire from anywhere on the floor?

None of the above.

Markkanen like any other person let alone basketball player is going to have his moments where he’s not feeling himself. He went 5-for-25 from the field with six points over a four-game stretch before Arizona took on Washington State Thursday.

If there’s anything Markkanen’s fourth double-double of the season against the Cougars taught us, don’t ever doubt the 7-footer from Finland.

In the first half, Markkanen contributed 11 points shooting 60 percent from the field and went 4-for-4 from the free throw line. It wasn’t just his scoring that elevated Arizona, but his rebounding activity gave a spark for the Wildcats, because Washington State had eight of their first 11 points in the paint.

Arizona struggled to execute on second chance points against California last week with 11 offensive rebounds, but only six points to show for it. Markkanen in the first half against Washington State had three offensive rebounds and it created scoring opportunities in the paint.

“One of the things he did today was establish himself from 2-point range,” Miller told FS1’s Steve Lavin post-game. “In and around the basket, second-chance shots, I thought he really came in to the game with the right mentality.”

Going into the second half, Markkanen picked up where he left off with eight points on 50 percent shooting. Fortunately for him, Parker Jackson-Cartwright had a career-high 20 points in his first start since November and Kobi Simmons scored the bulk of his eight second half points from 3-point range making taking care of business in the paint an the ideal situation.

Baby steps. All it takes is baby steps and Markkanen is arguably the most valuable front court player Arizona has this season—maybe in the Miller era—so be patient. It’s not the end of the world if a potential NBA Draft lottery pick has a rough couple of weeks.

While Markkanen struggled, Jason McIntyre from The Big Lead had the freshman going No. 1 overall in the upcoming NBA Draft so his struggles are just a dip from what has been a long, headline filled season for Arizona.

Markkanen’s performance against the Cougars was pure, focused basketball and it couldn’t of come at a better time for the Wildcats as the end of the regular season nears.


Follow Justin Spears on Twitter. 



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