Playing on his third team in as many seasons, Lauri Markkanen wasn't sure what to expect when he arrived in Salt Lake City last September.
Although he was just coming off a breakout performance following the EuroBasket 2022 tournament, he wasn't sure what to expect when moving to Utah as the Jazz were also in a massive transition.
"It's always hard following a trade, mainly because you just don't know what to expect when you go somewhere new," Markkanen said back then. "I'm living out of a hotel right now, and just trying to figure it out. Obviously there are a lot of changes going on. … New coach, new guys, new everything."
While the team spent the early parts of the season establishing an identity and getting comfortable playing with one another, Markkanen emerged as the team's most consistent player. But everything changed on November 18.
In a showdown with the Suns, Markkanen went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the league and led Utah to a 134-133 victory over Phoenix. He dropped a then-season-high 38 points on 15-of-18 shooting, adding six rebounds and three assists.
More than anything, the debate was over.
"Lauri is our guy. … He's our best player, and that's going to be reflected moving forward," head coach Will Hardy said the following day.
The vote of confidence from his head coach is part of what Markkanen needed to go from a solid role player to arguably the biggest breakout star of the NBA this season.
The sixth-year forward had a breakout season, being named to his first All-Star game and then chosen as a starter. He's also a prime candidate to be selected All-NBA after a season that saw him become the first player in NBA history to have 200 threes and 100 dunks in a season.
As Utah's No. 1 option, he averaged career-highs in points (25.6), shot attempts (17.3), field goal percentage (49.9%), free throw percentage (87.5%), assists (1.9), and minutes (34.4). He also averaged 8.6 rebounds per game, 39.2% from three, and 58.6% effective field goal percentage, all the second-most in his career.
"I think it's been my overall game coming together," Markkanen said. "Working on my overall game, working on where my spots are on the floor. … I've just been trying to bring everything together and just keep working on the overall package."
He dropped a career-high 49 points against Houston on Jan. 5, shooting 15-of-27 from the field, 6-of-15 from deep, and a perfect 13-for-13 from the free throw line.
"Our team looks to Lauri," Hardy added. "He's an NBA All-Star for a reason, and he's had a consistency about not only his play but his approach all season. 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 it's not uncommon for role players to take steps forward when they arrive in different situations, Markkanen's rise was somewhat unprecedented — which is why he's considered the favorite to win the NBA's Most Improved Player of the Year award.
His statistical improvement didn't just come because he was given more opportunities with the ball in his hand. He went from Cleveland's fourth option last season to Utah's No. 1, and did so with more efficiency.
"I think it's been the overall game coming together," Markkanen said. "Working on my overall game, working on where my spots are on the floor. I've just been trying to bring everything together and just keep working on the overall package."
"Lauri's done such a good job of continuing to work on different ways he can impact the game offensively," Hardy added. "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's immediate future in Utah seems set — he told reporters that Jazz CEO Danny Ainge told him to buy a house this summer — the ceiling he once had as a player is gone, and now the sky’s the limit.
"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," Hardy said.