Entering the 2022-23 NBA season, there might not have been two players on Utah's roster with more questions surrounding them than Jordan Clarkson and Lauri Markkanen.
That sort of intrigue combined with the remarkable season they’ve both had has landed Clarkson and Markkanen on the cover of Slam Magazine. They’re the third and fourth Jazz players to grace the cover of the magazine, joining Deron Williams and Donovan Mitchell.
Clarkson was the veteran on a rebuilding team, moving from the bench into the starting five, and it was unknown how we would do with more responsibility, both on the court and in the locker room.
Markkanen was seen around the NBA as a 7-foot shooter, someone who had turned into a role player rather than one leading a team. Nobody knew how he would do with the pressures of being a No. 1 or 2 option, how he would be able to adjust to being at the top of opponents scouting reports night in and night out.
Both players answered those questions and did so in incredible fashion. If Clarkson and Markkanen were tested this season, it's safe to say they've passed with flying colors.
"Confidence is everything in this league," Markkanen said in an interview with SLAM Magazine. "It makes everything so much easier when you believe in yourself, what you're doing, but it goes to your teammates as well. I think it's just everything in this building. … We all believe in each other, and I think that's really helping us build something bigger than ourselves."
As Utah's No. 1 option, Markkanen has emerged as one of the top players in the league and an All-NBA candidate. He's averaging career-highs in points (25.7), shot attempts (17.3), field goal percentage (50.1%), free throw percentage (87.3%), assists (1.9), and minutes (34.4).
He's also averaging 8.7 rebounds per game, 39.4% from three, and 58.9% effective field goal percentage, all the second-most in his career.
It's also been a career season for Clarkson, shedding the sixth man moniker to emerge as one of the more versatile guards in the league. He's averaging 20.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, both career highs. But the biggest development has come from his play-making ability, averaging a career-high 4.4 assists as he's shown the ability to facilitate an offense at a high level.
"You know, this is my home. … Salt Lake City has accepted me, and I'm proud to be here," Clarkson told Slam. "The Jazz, this is my family, and they let me be me.
Apart from their brilliant individual seasons, Markkanen and Clarkson have been the leaders for a Jazz team that many expected to be in the running for the No. 1 overall pick. Instead, they've led the Jazz to the brink of the postseason, having Utah in contention for one of the final play-in spots with just four games left in the regular season.
"We've got big goals for ourselves," Markkanen said. "Obviously it is a process, but we're not trying to fast forward a little bit as well [in] trying to build a winning culture. …For everybody, the end goal is to win a championship. I don't think we're here just to have a good time. … We're trying to win games and play meaningful games. That's what we're working toward."
One of the driving forces in that mentality has been the success of the younger players on the roster.
Rookies Walker Kessler and Ochai Agbaji look like steals in their respective trades from this past summer, while guards Talen Horton-Tucker and Collin Sexton have been sensational in spurts.
"Everybody is hungry," Clarkson added. "We've got a bunch of young guys who are willing to prove themselves, coming in here to work. … That's like a foundation point of anything."
Despite the season's success — especially compared to preseason expectations — there were trials and tribulations that Jazz have gone through. But they turned them into moments of growth that will serve the team very well in the near future.
"It goes with the territory," Clarkson said. "The biggest thing is that you wake up, and the sun comes out the next day. … You put your shoes back on, tie 'em up and figure it out. All of this is a part of the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs. … The roller coaster ain't no fun unless it makes loops."
Through those moments of learning — and when reflecting on his past — Clarkson has been able to impart his wisdom to Markkanen and the Jazz. It's part of why Utah's 'rebuild' has been accelerated and why the Jazz expect to be contenders sooner rather than later.
"I know it sounds crazy, but stick with the process," Clarkson said. "The biggest thing you can always say: it's never a failure, it's just a learning experience."