Right before Will Hardy stood up from his postgame press conference following Wednesday's victory over Toronto, he had one more parting message for the contingent of media members sitting in front of him.
His message was short and succinct.
"First of all, none of us are hoping. …. We are all EXPECTING Lauri to be an All-Star," Hardy said of his star.
Expectations are good to have when they come true.
Announced on Thursday night, Lauri Markkanen has been named a Western Conference All-Star. The game is set for Sunday, Feb. 19, at Vivint Arena and will serve as the conclusion of NBA All-Star weekend.
"He deserves it," Utah point guard Mike Conley said. "He's done everything for us. ... He's our guy."
As Utah's No. 1 option, Markkanen is having a breakout season where he's emerged 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 (24.9), shot attempts (16.0), field goal percentage (52.1%), three-point percentage (43.4%), assists (1.8), minutes (34.3), and effective field goal percentage (61.8%). He's also averaging 8.7 rebounds per game, the second-most in his career.
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 20 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.
But then something changed — for some reason unknown, his once-promising future in Chicago began to crumble. Although he was still putting up good numbers, they weren't close to what he had done previously — causing his future with the Bulls to be in doubt.
Instead of being allowed to grow through the pains in Chicago, Markkanen was traded to Cleveland heading into the 2021 season.
While his numbers didn't drastically improve last year, it was the first time Markkanen was part of a winning team. Ranking fourth on the Cavs in scoring, he was used primarily as a spot-up shooter in Cleveland's ultra-big lineup.
Simply put, he was still a role player. His untapped potential remained just that; untapped.
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."