One of the hardest things for an NBA player to do is take a step toward stardom.
After being viewed a certain way for years, it's nearly impossible for a player to not just change the narrative around them but be allowed to prove it.
But if someone does want to change and prove it, how do they go about doing so?
Sometimes all they need is a change of scenery. Sometimes it takes a coach who's willing to believe them. Sometimes it's as simple as just growing and finding the right scenario.
For Lauri Markkanen, it just happened that all of those things took place the second he put on a Jazz uniform.
“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.”
Since arriving in Utah in September, 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, numbers that rank second in his career. He has posted nine double-doubles this season, more than he had combined in the last three years.
"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."
Yet, for someone who's so incredibly talented and leading one of the biggest surprises in the NBA, how did Markkanen find himself in Utah? How did someone with so much potential slip through not one, but two teams' hands and end up in the snowcapped mountains of 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 largely 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.
While Markkanen never publicly criticized anybody or anything, his once-promising future in Chicago began to crumble. Although he was still put 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.
But 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.
"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."
He's parlayed that trip overseas into his impressive start with the Jazz.
It's why he's already generating massive All-Star buzz, even if the February showcase is three months away. Whether it be his teammates or pundits around the league, most are beginning to believe the hype and understand that it's more lasting than it is fleeting.
"He's been just as impressive as an athlete, having not been around him before, as he is a basketball player," head coach Will 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."
Consider the narrative rewritten.
“I think the important thing is not being satisfied,” he said. “I have to know that there are a lot of things that I can keep improving. … It’s a process.”