Markkanen: Borat, trick shots and true grit

2018-02-10T12:26:03+00:00 2018-02-10T14:50:46+00:00.

Aris Barkas

10/Feb/18 12:26

Lauri Markkanen became a father this week and he is taking the NBA by storm. Not bad for a “Borat” fan who is specialized in trick shots and from an early age demonstrated true grit in the Finnish national team. This is Lauri through the eyes of his teammates and friends who talked to Eurohoops about him.

By Dionysis Aravantinos /

During September, Finland was hosting a EuroBasket group stage for the first time in the country’s history. Simply put, the stakes were high. The “pack of wolves”, as the Finnish national team is nicknamed, had won the respect from other countries in recent tournaments, but not anything more.

Barcelona’s guard and Dallas’ draftee Petteri Koponen was the de facto leader of the team, a basketball icon for his country. But things were about to change. A young seven-footer who was preparing for his rookie season in the NBA wanted the ball in his hands and – most importantly – was asking for the responsibility. The pressure had arrived.

Finland was battling for qualification in the next round against the eventual champs Slovenia, France, Greece and Poland. Lauri Markkanen was ready. “The craziest part that many people don’t know is that in the game against Poland and Slovenia, he wanted the ball in his hands down the stretch and it was kind of strange to me… at his age, for someone to want the ball in the final minutes”, explains his teammate Jamar Wilson, currently a member of French club Nanterre. “He had done his part, he played well throughout the game, so there was no pressure on him anymore because he had done his job. But when the game was on the line, he was calling plays for himself, and I was amazed by that. Especially for someone that age, this is something rare to see. He was going to make a play, and it was going to be on his shoulders. To me that was amazing.”

The group stage of EuroBasket 2017 turned out to be the coming out party for the young Bull who ended up averaging 19.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. And while everyone was talking about the 20-year old who was taking the competition by storm, his teammates were not surprised.

Lauri always had a competitive nature inside him, and he wasn’t shy about it. “My first experience with Lauri was in the summer of 2015”, remembers veteran Shawn Huff, also a teammate of Marrkanen in the Finnish national team. “It was early preseason for the national teams and players were working out by themselves. No camps were being held yet. It was just us at the gym with a trainer, and after our workouts, we decided to play one-on-one. Somehow, we decided not to keep score and just play. After five minutes, the trainer asked for the score and Lauri yelled it to him. I was impressed because I had also been keeping score in my mind. This was the first sign to me of Lauri’s competitiveness.”

The 20-year old Lauri will just not accept defeat. “We decided to play our last game before going to lift weights. I won the last one, and I could see it in his eyes that he wanted it. I was just waiting for it. He asked to play one more. I loved it. This kid has so much talent, but what impressed me was his will to get better and win. I decided then that I need to beat him as many times possible”, Huff added with a smile. “At 31 years old at the time, my only advantage was being more physical than him, and I knew this would probably be the last summer that I could beat him one-on-one, so I needed to make the best of it.”

Raging Bull

Lauri Markkanen is emerging as one of the best rookies in the NBA, averaging 15.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game for the Chicago Bulls. His shooting touch is one of a kind, and there’s a good reason for that.

Lauri always loved to shoot. And he did it from anywhere and everywhere. Elias Valtonen, who played with Markkanen one year back in Finland and he is going to join Arizona State University next year which is also Lauri’s rival school in the States, was a first-hand witness. “At school when we had breaks between classes we went to our auditorium where we had a small basketball court to shoot ‘full court’ shots. We played full court shot battles because the length of the court was not even 15 meters”.

Shooting is not just his game, but his obsession. “Another thing that Lauri was good at basketball trick shots”, reveals Edon Maxhuni, the point guard of Long Beach State and also a teammate of Markkanen back in Finland and Lauri’s first club in Finland, HoNsU. “I don’t know if he practiced those shots, but almost every day he made a couple of crazy ones! It was his thing! No matter where he was on the court, he always made it. It did not matter if it was from half court, full court, behind the basket… it was just something that he loved to do, and he was good at!”

Because of his height, Markkanen had and still has an advantage down low of catching the ball higher than the average basketball player. “Lauri was one of the easiest players to play with. He was able to catch passes a little higher than other players and moved in the court really well. It was nice to follow his hard work, and of course, I tried to do the same. He was like a big brother to me”, explains Valtonen.

With basketball being a passion, there were no days off for the rising star. Carl Lindbom, who was Lauri’s teammate in the national team and currently plays for KK Vrijednosnice Osijek in the Croatian League, as well as Paulo Cruz, his former teammate in Arizona, explain his mentality: “He works harder than anybody else. When we have days off, and the guys start talking about what we should do on our day off, Lauri always just says he is going to work out,” Lindbom states. “Lauri is a really unique player because he is a silent worker. He is in the gym, and no one else knows he is in the gym. He has never had off days,” Cruz adds.

Great success

Being 20 years old, Lauri is still a kid. He enjoys playing video games, and of course, his competitiveness is evident in this department as well.

We watched games together, we went over to his house to play some video games and to have fun with teammates! I just know that he is pretty good at any game in PS4, so I didn’t want even to challenge him”, Maxhuni says in a laughing tone as does Carl Lindbom. “One thing we like to do with Lauri when we are on our national team trips is that we play NHL on the PlayStation. Mostly he has been beating me but I’ve been practicing this year in order to defeat him next summer on NHL because most likely I won’t be beating him in our basketball practices (laughs)”.

But his true love is “Borat”! Especially in his days in Arizona, “Borat” had been one of the jokes in the team’s locker room.

“He is a big fan of the movie “Borat”. Many times, throughout the season he was impersonating Borat and his funny accent, and that turned out to be one of our main jokes in the locker room. All of a sudden, the whole team was talking about Borat and the funny scenes from the movie”, Dusan Ristic, his teammate in the University of Arizona, remembers.

“We used to walk around Arizona, to the locker rooms and caught the “Borat” movie”, confirms Cruz. “I think it’s his favorite movie. What’s funny about it is that my nickname is P-Lo, Borat’s brother name in the movie is Bilo, and so Lauri would walk up to me and say, “My brother Bilo”, and we’d both laugh even though no one else would get it.”

Parker Cartwright who was also Markkanen’s teammate for one year in Arizona and is now a senior talked to us about the singing abilities that Lauri secretly enjoyed: “He always hated but secretly enjoyed whenever I sang a made-up song. It was a tune I made up, and I would sing “go big lau ay, go big lau ay” over and over again after he did something good and he would give me a stare with a smile that basically said, ‘shut up’ (laughs)”.

So, what’s not to love about a fan of “Borat” who is also a seven-footer and the best rookie three-point shooter in the league? “Lauri is a great guy, one of my favorite teammates that I’ve ever had. He is really humble and dedicated to the game. He was always 100% focused on basketball and winning games. Off the court, Lauri is a funny guy with a great sense of humor. Always positive, telling jokes and funny stories” agrees Ristic and Maxhuni adds: “He was a cool kid, and he loved basketball. He dreamed big and look where he is now! I look forward to playing with him in the national team in the next years and why not one day in the NBA too,” he concludes.

In the immortal words of Borat himself: “Great success”!