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PORTLAND, OREGON - JANUARY 25: Lauri Markkanen #23 of the Utah Jazz stands during the national anthem before the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center on January 25, 2023 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images)

"Extremely Happy" | Markkanen Named Western Conference Starter For NBA All-Star Game

Ryan Kostecka
Digital Content Writer

After what’s been an emotionally and physically difficult week, good news is on the horizon for Lauri Markkanen. 

Juts over a week after he was named to the NBA All-Star game as a Western Conference reserve for the first time, Markkanen found out that he will have a different role as the star of the host city at the February showcase.

Announced by the NBA on Friday afternoon, Markkanen has been named a Western Conference starter — replacing injured New Orleans forward Zion Williamson.

“Extremely happy. ... Excited. That’s kind of — on a personal level — what you’ve been working for,” he said. "You remember everything you’ve gone through in your journey, and everything happens for a reason. ... I was so happy when it happened, but then slowly started thinking of the stuff I had to go through to get here.”

The honor is incredibly well deserved as Markkanen is having a breakout season as Utah’s No. 1 option, emerging as one of the top players in the league thanks to his unique skillset as an athletic 7-footer. He's averaging career-highs in points (24.7), shot attempts (16.1), field goal percentage (51.8%), three-point percentage (42.3%), assists (1.7), minutes (34.2), and effective field goal percentage (61.8%). He's also averaging 8.6 rebounds per game, the second-most in his career.

“When other teams play the Utah Jazz they know they have to game plan for Lauri Markkanen,” head coach Will Hardy said. “I don’t think that there’s a whole lot that I need to say that his play hasn’t said already.”

His ability to score at all three levels on high efficiency continues to separate Markkanen from others — including a career-high 49 points against Houston on Jan. 5.

He has scored at least 30 points in a game 11 times this year, more than he had over the past three seasons combined. He has posted 21 doubles-doubles this year, again more than he had combined in the last three seasons.

"Lauri's done such a good job of continuing to work on different ways he can impact the game offensively," Hardy said. "Obviously he's shown the ability to shoot the ball. … But the physicality he's been able to play with, to drive the ball and as a screener, has given him the opportunity to score in a variety of ways."

While Markkanen may be emerging as a bonafide star in the league, his first All-Star selection is something that some didn't see happening before he arrived in Salt Lake City. 

When he entered the NBA in 2017, the hype was through the roof for the 7-footer from Finland. He was viewed so highly that the Chicago Bulls — one of the league's most storied franchises — traded away perennial All-Star Jimmy Butler for Markkanen, the No. 7 pick in the draft. 

Markkanen primarily lived up to that hype, culminating in a sophomore season where he emerged as a legit sharpshooting big man. Although the jury was still out on whether he could be a serious No. 1 or 2 option for a team, he had proven that he was, at worse, a prominent role player.

“I think it would speak to Lauri, I think it would speak to his maturity, his work ethic, and the way that he’s navigated the early part of his NBA career,” Hardy said. “It would speak a lot to his teammates here and how much trust they put in him. He’s the first person to say his success is not because he dribbles the ball up the court and makes a move and shoots. he plays within the context of our group. ... He wants to win and they want to win, and they know that he’s the guy.”

That all changed this past summer. 

Markkanen was the breakout star at EuroBasket, averaging 27.9 points on 54.2% shooting and eight rebounds over seven games. His 43 points in the Round of 16 set the all-time record for a Finnish player at the EuroBasket, leading Finland to its first quarterfinal appearance in 55 years.

What made his performance even more impressive — and more satisfying, personally — is that Markkanen was traded to Utah one day before Finland's opener against Israel. With his future NBA career in a state of unknown, Markkanen had the mental fortitude to block out the distractions and star for his country — showing the sort of play that started all that hype five years prior. 

"He's been just as impressive as an athlete, having not been around him before, as he is a basketball player," Hardy said. "I don't know what the ceiling is on Lauri. … I don't think any of us do, but I'm pretty sure we haven't seen it yet."

While Hardy may be right and nobody knows what the ceiling is on Lauri, being named a starter in your first all-star game is further prof that hard work and dedication truly do pay off.

"I’ve said this publicly before, but absolutely it has always been my personal goal," he said. “Obviously I’ve got team goals and I’m always gonna push those first, but like at an individual level that’s always been my goal. Not just to be one of the guys in the league, I want to make it to the top.”