Lauri Markkanen’s father, Pekka, walked into the press room in McKale Center before Arizona head coach Sean Miller or his son on Thursday. The story had already been reported before the press conference, but the sight of Pekka confirmed what everyone in the room assumed, that his son was entering the NBA.
Markkanen announced that he was headed for this summer’s NBA draft after just one season with the Wildcats. The Finn averaged 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in his lone season at Arizona.
All the hype surrounding Markkanen turned out to be warranted after he scored in double digits in his first nine career games and was named a third-team All-American and a first-team Pac-12 honoree.
But, Markkanen’s final snapshot wasn’t pretty. He didn’t attempt a shot in the final 11 minutes of Arizona’s Sweet Sixteen upset loss to Xavier. Heck, he had 2 points and one rebound in the second half—not the way he envisioned going out.
“We know we were 32-5, Pac-12 Tournament and regular season champions, but of course [the team is] disappointed. Everyone thought that we could go further,” Markkanen said.
Of course, Markkanen will be remembered as a 7-foot sharpshooter, but is it fair that the first memory that will ping in the minds of Arizona fans everywhere when they think of Markkanen is of those final 11 minutes?
It’s not. Sports can be cruel, but it’s important to remember how special his freshman season really was.
Markkanen was the only player in the Pac-12 to rank in the top 12 in scoring, rebounding, free throw percentage and 3-point field goal percentage in 2017, and he scored in double figures in all but five of Arizona’s 37 games. He was, clearly, as big of a reason as any that the Wildcats were even in a position to make a deep run in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Many athletes like to point out that the journey or path to a championship is as important as the final results. To ball up and throw away Markkanen’s freshman season before the Xavier game is almost, no, it’s actually absurd.
His 576 points are tied for second most all-time by a UA freshman, and his 69 3-pointers are third for freshman, and there’s certainly no other 7-footers on that list.
And Markkanen played some of his best games when Arizona needed him most. He averaged 20.5 points and 7.5 rebounds on nearly 64 percent shooting when Arizona swept USC and UCLA on the road in January en route to winning his first of two Pac-12 Player of the Week honors.
Some of his biggest games came late in the season. He dropped 29 points against UCLA in the Pac-12 semi-finals and posted a 16-point, 11-rebound double-double, getting to the free throw line 10 times, in Arizona’s second-round victory against Saint Mary’s College in the NCAA Tournament.
He had a bad second half against Xavier. To remember him only for that means you hadn’t been watching since the season began in October.
“For our fans, they’ll be proud of him like they’ve been proud of Steve Kerr and Aaron Gordon and all the great players that have come through here,” Miller said. “And watch him, in my opinion, for many, many years be successful in the NBA.”
To be mentioned in the same breath as someone like Kerr shows you the respect that Miller, who knows him best, has for the youngster.
It also shows that Markkanen was a fan favorite by those in Tucson, even though he didn’t say much.
English is his second language, and while he has not struggled throughout the year with the media, he has seemed overwhelmed at times with certain questions. His shy, boyish charm was apparent when he was asked about his biggest improvement at Arizona during his press conference on Thursday.
“I think I got better at small talk,” Markkanen said.
After the media room erupted with laughter, Miller said it felt like “[Markkanen] just got here” and is sad to see him go.
“The world of college basketball is certainly unique. Sometimes the players that are the best, the players that you love the most, that work the hardest, leave you the soonest,” Miller said. “I don’t know if I have ever coached a player that has given more of himself, that has cared more about the University of Arizona, his teammates, then this guy [pointing to Markkanen] right here.”
He will go down as one of the best freshman to ever come through Tucson, and is one of the best front-court players to ever play in McKale Center.
Don’t remember Markkanen for one night he came up short; remember him for the journey he took the Arizona program on.
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