The start of the 2022-23 NBA season has been a shock to all basketball fans. Some teams, like the Portland Trail Blazers, are greatly exceeding their modest expectations, while others, such as the Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors, have fallen well below their championship aspirations. However, no team has been a bigger surprise than the Utah Jazz.
Utah had arguably the most eventful offseason of any team in the NBA. The Jazz traded away both of their star players, first trading Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves and then Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers. While the Jazz got a haul for both players, the seeming lack of immediate help led many to pick them as a basement dweller this season.
Instead, Utah has shockingly been one of the best teams in the league in the first month. The Jazz sit in third in the Western Conference at 10-5, but they’re tied with the Blazers and Denver Nuggets for the top spot. They have some impressive wins too, including one over the Nuggets and two over the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Jazz don’t have a true star player, but they do have six players averaging 10 or more points. Collin Sexton, whom Utah acquired in the Mitchell trade, has scored 14 points per game as primarily a bench player. Jordan Clarkson has been even better, with 18.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
However, the biggest reason for Utah’s success has been another piece in the Mitchell trade, one nobody expected to be this good.
Lauri Markkanen, a Finland native, first burst onto the scene playing for Arizona in the 2016-17 season. He became the star for the Wildcats by averaging 15.6 points and 7.9 rebounds while starting every game. With Markkanen leading the way, the Wildcats earned a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament and made it to the Sweet 16 before falling to 11-seed Xavier in an upset.
Markkanen decided to enter the NBA draft after the season, and his career immediately got off to an eventful start. The Minnesota Timberwolves drafted him with the seventh overall pick, but immediately traded him to the Chicago Bulls as part of the Jimmy Butler deal. Chicago entered a rebuild after the Butler trade, but Markkanen made the most of the opportunity.
The power forward started 68 games in the 2017-18 season, averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds. He earned a spot on the 2018 All-Rookie Team and only improved in his second season. Markkanen averaged 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds in 2018-19, though he only played in 52 games.
After that, though, Markkanen began to decline in Chicago. He averaged 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in 2019-20, then 13.6 points and 5.3 rebounds while only starting 26 games in 2020-21. His declining stats led to the Bulls to trade him to the Cleveland Cavaliers the following offseason.
Markkanen improved slightly with the Cavs, averaging 14.8 points and 5.7 rebounds in 61 starts. Even not at his peak, he played a key role in leading Cleveland to 44 wins and a play-in berth. His time in Cleveland would be short, as the Cavs shipped him off to bring in a star in Mitchell.
Most saw Markkanen as just a throw-in, with Cleveland just moving out salary to clear space for Mitchell. However, Markkanen has flourished with the Jazz and has been the best player on the team this season.
Markkanen has started all 15 games for Utah, averaging 21.8 points and 8.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 assists per game. He has also been very efficient, shooting 52.6% from the floor, well above his previous career high of 48%. Additionally, he has scored over 30 points four times and has led the Jazz in scoring eight times.
Markkanen has not only been the most surprising player on the Jazz, but one of the most surprising in the NBA. He is one of the strongest contenders for Most Improved Player, sitting at +700, per FanDuel, the third-best odds in the league. If Utah continues its hot start, it will be on the back of Markkanen.
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