I love many things about the NBA. Comparing players is not one of them. Curse Michael Jordan for setting the bar.
But that, unfortunately, is what the NBA Draft is for. And if you’re among the many who have gotten nauseous about Arizona big man Lauri Markkanen being compared to Dirk Nowitzki, continue to pass the Pepto Bismol.
It’s only going to get worse if the Dallas Mavericks take Markkanen with the likely No. 9 pick.
Start collecting the names of every 7-foot white basketball player with a foreign background who has played in the NBA since Dirk was drafted. Probably 99.5 percent of those players have been compared to him. Andrea Bargnani, for the love of everything holy, had that label bestowed upon him once.
It’s become aggravating. Dirk is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon who descended from the heavens for the purpose of putting an orange sphere through a hoop while spreading good cheer to the city of Dallas.
Lauri Markkanen is a 20-year-old freshman from the University of Arizona who is white and also happens to be the best shooting big man in this draft class.
He is very, very good. And he can perhaps even be pretty great. But if the Mavericks take him, please chill on the comparisons before I have to chug more Pepto.
Let’s start with the basics. Markkanen can stretch the floor and do it well. He shot 54.5 percent from the field in his lone Wildcat season and knocked down 42.3 percent of his threes.
Markkanen also spent a lot of time on the floor, making the most of his touches during his 31 minutes per game. That’s good volume you can live with for a guy of his size and why those 7.2 rebounds are a good indicator of his all-around talent (his offensive rebounding, especially, is really good). Sure, you want him crashing the glass more often with height, but that’s not a glaring red flag.
The big man can get to the free-throw line. I like that a lot. He averaged 4.4 attempts and made 83.5 percent of his charity-stripe shots. Think about how bad college teams are at making their free throws. It’s like the scene in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” where Harry’s playing Quidditch and Professor Quirrell is jinxing Harry’s broom in mid-air, causing chaos and mass hysteria.
There has to be someone jinxing these college players when they get to the free-throw line, because dear lord, they are bad. But not Markkanen. He can put the ball on the floor, get to the line and get his team two points. Offensive versatility is a beautiful thing, and you’ll take that from a guy who can put the ball on the floor like an athletic wing.
His catch-and-shoot ability is also unfair for most defenses. Markkanen is an amazing pick-and-pop shooter, which explains why he was one of the best in the country at scoring in the half court at nearly 1.3 points per possession. This is a skill that can transfer to real NBA success; guys like Ray Allen and Kyle Korver mastered coming off a screen and firing when ready.
Add in an efficient pull-up game from mid-range, and Markkanen has the tools to be a versatile offensive player at the next level. It helps to be tall and have the shooting stroke he has.
One potential concern is whether Markkanen might have a tendency to grow complacent in his shot selection. His shooting percentage dipped below 50 percent in Pac-12 play, but his three-point attempts leveled around 4.5 per game. His offensive repertoire makes him lethal inside the three-point line, and he needs to know that and to factor it into his decision making.
Averaging less than a block per game is also concerning. I’m not saying he needs to be Dikembe Mutombo, but those need to go up if Markkanen wants to be a franchise-caliber player. That’s what has turned Kristaps Porzingis into a lethal force. His offensive game is nice, but he can be a game changer in the post. The most blocks Markkanen had this year was three against Arizona State. He only did that once.
Be a big man. Not just big, man.
Fit with the Mavericks
Welp. Here we go.
If the Mavericks take Markkanen, it helps Dallas maintain the status quo. He learns under Dirk and becomes his eventual replacement whenever he hangs them up.
Dallas wouldn’t have to change much with their offense. The Mavericks would need to see more of a post-up game from Markkanen before giving him the kind of role Dirk commanded later in his career, but he’s got the face-up game down pat and the knock-down shooting.
In turn, Markkanen pushes Harrison Barnes back down to small forward. We ponder how Barnes, Markkanen and Nerlens Noel would work together, and it again creates the conundrums that we faced in late March/April.
Rick Carlisle can make it work. He’s a wizard, he knows these things. Markkanen would fit well with the Mavericks because his game means Dallas doesn’t have to change much. But whether maintaining the status quo is the best path forward for Dallas is, of course, the question. We’ll find out soon.