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Jazz Detail Plan to Build Around Former Top-10 Pick

Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen

It’s no secret that the Utah Jazz are building around Lauri Markkanen.

Selected seventh overall in the 2017 NBA Draft, Markkanen has been highly valued at every stop in his career. The Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers believed in his talent, even though Markkanen eventually fell out of favor in the Windy City. Yet, with the Jazz, Markkanen is the face of the franchise.

Jazz Detail Plan to Build Around Lauri Markkanen

It may not have been expected but upon arriving in Utah with Collin Sexton in the Donovan Mitchell trade, Markkanen has averaged 25.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in his first season with the Jazz. Named an All-Star for the first time that same season, the wheels were put in motion for him to become the franchise’s top priority.

Speaking to The Salt Lake Tribune’s Andy Larsen, Jazz general manager Justin Zanik says, “Lauri’s a hugely important piece for us now and going forward.”

“As Lauri grows and continues to get better, then we’re adding so they can grow with him. (We want to) add people that are complementary to Lauri and to Walker (Kessler). That doesn’t have to be Mr. Alpha on whatever team. I’d love them to be as good or better than Lauri, but they could be a couple of really, really good role players.”

“I don’t want to waste any years of that,” Zanik continues, explaining his approach to building around the Finnish forward, “but you also have to do it within the timeline.

We’re not trying to say, ‘Hey, Lauri… we’re going to burn all our picks and get some marginal improvement from an overpaid player… Our goal is to make the playoffs and then grow from there. So what are those moves that can do that?”

John Collins’ Days Numbered?

With Zanik noting the team’s desire to build around Markkanen and Walker Kessler, it would seem John Collins’ days are numbered. Kessler is an intimidating shot-blocker, averaging 2.4 blocks in 23.2 minutes per game. Selected with the 22nd overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, Kessler may offer Utah their best chance of matching up with the Jazz’s star centers.

However, Utah started Collins at center for most of the season. There were multiple reasons why this occurred despite their confidence in Kessler. To start, Collins is a more mobile big man than Kessler though not fluid enough to hang out on the perimeter full-time. He’s a three-level scorer who made 37.1 percent of his 3s, stretching the floor horizontally and vertically.

With that said, Zanik says he likes Collins but wants to see if there’s another level he can reach. Ideally, they would start him at power forward and Markkanen at small forward. Such a configuration would require Collins to improve his ability to guard out in space.

Clearing the Logjam

Of their rookie class, Keyonte George appears to be their main priority. Drafted 16th overall, George has shown promise as a scorer, facilitator, and defender. However, George was inconsistent throughout the season and there was too much congestion in the backcourt rotation.

Solving that “roster balance stuff” will be among Zanik’s tasks as he builds around Markkanen. To that point, Collins could easily be replaced by Taylor Hendricks, who the Jazz selected ninth overall in the 2023 NBA Draft. An athletic and instinctive defender, Hendricks is shooting 37.6 percent from 3.

Perhaps solving those issues will make Jazz head coach Will Hardy’s job easier.

Front office politics, namely a need to boost the trade value of players like Sexton or Collins could have led to him placing them in roles the organization would rather another player man. Hardy can be creative with the X’s and O’s. Players have been able to evolve with him and his coaching staff at the helm. However, Hardy wasn’t comfortable doling out minutes to players like Sexton, which could lead to his trade this offseason.

As for Hardy?

“You don’t have to worry about him, he’s good,” Zanik says. “He’s coaching the heck out of guys and he understands what we’re all trying to do together with this.”

Notably, Hardy and Markkanen have as good a relationship as a coach and star player could have. If the plan is to build around the 26-year-old, having the right coach goes a long way. To that point, so does continuity, and Markkanen could have that for the first time in his career if Utah holds onto the Gregg Popovich disciple.


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