Every year in February, NBA players take a break from the daily rigors of life in the league and unwind for a week.
Most of them will travel to exotic places to relax in the sun, allowing the heat to heal their bodies for the stretch run of the season. Others will unplug while at home, taking the opportunity to spend quality time with their families.
Yet, a select few will get a shortened break — and for a good reason. Instead of vibing in the sun or chilling with family, some players are chosen to participate in NBA All-Star weekend.
Rather than potentially returning to Finland to see his family, Lauri Markkanen deserves to remain at home in Salt Lake City — representing the Utah Jazz as a 2023 NBA All-Star.
"It's a blessing to just be in the conversation," Markkanen said about being an All-Star. "I'm working on my game every day, working with my teammates every day, so I hope I make it. It motivates me every day to come out and play my best every night."
Since arriving in Utah in September via a trade with Cleveland, Markkanen has changed the entire perception around him.
He's gone from a solid role player to a breakout star — the No. 1 scouting report for opposing teams. He's not only shown vast improvements in every part of his game, but he's also shown the consistency that can take a role player to an All-Star.
As Utah's No. 1 option, Markkanen is averaging career-highs in points (22.2), shot attempts (15.3), field goal percentage (53.1%), assists (2.2), minutes (33.9), and effective field goal percentage (61.3%). He's averaging 8.5 rebounds and shooting 39.5% from three-point territory, ranking second in his career.
"He causes a lot of problems with his ability to read the game off the ball," point guard Mike Conley said. "We've had more actions with him slipping to the rim and getting layups and dunks than we've probably had in a long time. He's a really smart player, and with his height and size, he can finish over a lot of people and still make plays for other guys on the weak side."
Before Tuesday's tipoff against Detroit, the big news that day was that NBA All-Star voting had officially opened that morning — and Markkanen reminded everyone that he deserves to be playing at the February showcase.
After another hot start in the opening 12 minutes, Markkanen was downright dominant all game long. He tied his career-high with 38 points on 13-for-20 from the floor and 9-of-13 from beyond the arc, adding five rebounds. His nine three-pointers made was a career-high.
What made his game so special against the Pistons is that it came just 24 hours after he torched his former team, Cleveland, in an entirely different manner.
After being aggressive and making a living at the free throw line against the Cavaliers, Markkanen showed that he's just as good in the midrange and from deep. His most impressive moment came when he drilled a stepback three-pointer on one possession and followed that up with an impressive shot fake that allowed him to soar in for a dunk on the following possession.
"His teammates know how good he is and how good he can be, and they are probably empowering him more than I am," head coach Will Hardy said. "You look at him, and you wouldn't assume that he's that mobile and that nimble. Like, his footwork, it's not just like the speed in a straight line. … It's his footwork in tight spaces and ability to change direction."
Markkanen has scored at least 30 points in a game seven times this year — more than he had over the past three seasons combined. He has posted 11 doubles-doubles this year, again more than he had combined in the last three seasons.
Whether or not Markkanen makes the game, he will keep going about his business and trying to become a better player. But make no make mistake, the All-Star game is not just a goal of his — it's become a legitimate reality.
"I think I always find something to work on. … You always find stuff you can do better," he said. "It might be a little tough sometimes, but it kind of keeps you trying to play at the highest level. … It's really motivating for me."