How Jaren Jackson Jr. and Lauri Markkanen made the leap

Published April 27, 2023, 9:00 AMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

The rise of Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Lauri Markkanen this season earned them the Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player awards, respectively.

They say that the hardest leap is the one a player makes from All-Star to superstar. Think back on the improvement of Ja Morant from rising talent to a full-on franchise player, earning him the Most Improved Player award last season. Or how Stephen Curry’s growth from just another All-Star to a championship-caliber leader led to his MVP win in 2015. That kind of progress is also hard to spot because of the thin line separating a good player from a great player. 

If that leap is the most difficult to make and to spot, then the most obvious development of a player is the one role players make to become All-Stars. All it takes is a change in a player’s role or situation and suddenly they’re playing the best basketball of their career.

That brings to mind two first-time All-Stars and award-winners this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. led the league in blocks this season, averaging a clean three blocks per game. But that’s old news. Jackson already led the league in blocks last season. Throughout his career, he’s been known as one of the league’s best rim protectors, finishing in the top 10 in every year of his career except his rookie season and an injury-plagued 2020-2021 season. 

That was his role for the Memphis Grizzlies. He was the team’s insurance policy in the paint. But for the Grizzlies to be considered a serious contender, Jackson needed to develop a new identity just like his team was developing in the past few years. This season, Jackson transformed into Memphis’ all-around defensive weapon.

Jackson can block shots. That’s obvious watching him play. He swats nearly 10 percent of the shots players take whenever he’s on the floor. That’s an absurd number when you consider the pace of the modern NBA. 

What’s changed this season is how JJJ has become Memphis’ security blanket on defense. He can be paired next to Steven Adams, giving the team an imposing wall in the paint. When teams go small, he can be the lone defender in the middle and still give up almost no points when shots are within the vicinity of his long arms. Jackson is also a great defender out on the perimeter, capable of keeping up with the twitchiest of guards. Because of him, the Grizzlies have become one of the best defensive teams in the league, allowing only 111.2 points per 100 possessions - good for second in the league.

JJJ raised his game. Not just his defense but even his offense. He stayed destructive on the defensive end while averaging career-highs on offense. His growth cemented Memphis’ place as a legitimate top team out in the West. That’s what truly earned him a spot in the All-Star Game and eventually the Defensive Player of the Year nod.

If Jackson’s role before this season was clear, Lauri Markkanen’s was not.

When the Chicago Bulls traded away Jimmy Butler for the pick to draft Markkanen, many saw the young big man as the first piece in the team’s rebuild. He was a power forward with great size and excellent shooting - a perfect fit for the modern NBA.

Unfortunately, injuries limited Markkanen’s time on the court. He averaged only 51 games in the following three seasons after his rookie year. That also limited his reps with the rest of the young team and because he was in and out of the lineup, he was used in different ways. In his last year with the Bulls, he even came off the bench as a sixth man for half the games he played.

Even when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was used out of position as well. Just because he could shoot, he was used as a small forward next to Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, which was a weird fit. In the offseason, Markkanen was traded by the Cavs to the Utah Jazz as part of the Donovan Mitchell package. At the same time, he played for the Finnish National Team in the 2022 EuroBasket tournament where he showed everyone what his real role should be.

The Jazz took note of Markkanen’s EuroBasket stint and leaned on him heavily as the team’s top player, just like Team Finland did. Markkanen, who’s older and stronger now, responded to the call. He had a career year, averaging 25.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Even though his usage rate shot up, he was able to remain insanely efficient. Markkanen was used in more than a quarter of Utah’s possessions but he was able to still increase his percentages across the board. More importantly, he was available for the Jazz. He averaged more than 34 minutes in 66 games, the highest number since his rookie season.

When he was traded away, he was seen as a filler, a throw-in player to complete the package. After his breakout season, Markkanen finally met everyone’s expectations of him. He’s an important piece of the Jazz’s rebuild, an All-Star, and also this year’s Most Improved Player.

Understandably, NBA award voters want to reward the difficult leap made by players from All-Stars to superstars. But the obvious leap from role player to All-Star shouldn’t be penalized because it’s an easy vote. Yes, it takes a simple change, like how Jackson was used by the Grizzlies, or for Markkanen to be traded to a new team. But their improvement this season is so remarkable that it deserves to be recognized. Jackson and Markkanen obviously deserve their awards.