If ever there was a prospect made for Minnesota, it just might be 7-foot Finnish forward Lauri Markkanen.
He can skate, shoot, score and he likes cold weather, too.
He also has sisu.
If you’re unfamiliar with saunas and St. Urho’s Day as well, sisu doesn’t translate exactly into English. Roughly, it’s a national trait shared by Finns and embodied in their collective resolve, perseverance, stoicism and lasting courage against all odds.
“I know what it is,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said, “and he definitely has it.”
Markkanen played one year and 37 games for Miller, who deemed him the best shooter of any size in a college basketball season that also presented Kentucky’s Malik Monk and Duke’s Luke Kennard.
Miller also calls him a mature, driven and skilled 20-year-old who’s more than a one-dimensional shooter, as exceptional at that as he might be, and he’s tougher than your stereotypical tall European. Don’t forget: Kristaps Porzingis of Latvia faced some of the same questions two years ago before New York drafted him fourth.
“You know the knock on European guys, but he’s really tough,” Arizona teammate Rawle Alkins said. “I played with him all season. I watched his motor. He’s tough.”
If it’s more court space Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau needs for young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to operate, NBA scouts project Markkanen as a classic “stretch” power forward who will loosen opposing defenses with his three-point shooting.
He does so with a sweet stroke, a high, quick release and sometimes a slight fade with his body that invites comparisons to Markkanen’s favorite player, Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki.
“He’s 7 feet,” Arizona teammate Kobi Simmons said. “He can get his shot off over anybody.”
Markkanen’s father, Pekka, played for Roy Williams once upon a time at Kansas. His longtime skills coach, Hanno Mottola, played for Rick Majerus at Utah two decades ago and became the first Finn to reach the NBA when he played two seasons with Atlanta.
Markkanen’s earliest memory is sleeping with a basketball when other Finnish kids picked up skates and sticks. His father kept a diary from when his son when 10 that details how Lauri practiced 4½ hours a day by himself or against his father or older brothers.
“He has an incredible love of the game,” Miller said. “He wants to be great.”
On Thursday in Brooklyn, he’ll become the first Finn drafted in the first round in a decade. If the Wolves select him seventh overall, it’ll be because Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden consider him versatile and tough enough to play for a coach who values defense but also knows his team must keep up in the NBA’s three-point arms race.
“I don’t see him as one-dimensional at all,” said ESPN draft analyst Jay Bilas, who rates Markkanen the draft’s sixth-best prospect. “He can shoot it. He’s big and strong. He can post. He rebounds at a good rate. He’s an excellent free-throw shooter. He’s got deep range for a big guy.
“He’s a pick-and-pop big in today’s game, where stretching the floor is at a premium. I think he’s an outstanding prospect.”
Markkanen shot 49 percent from the field, 42 percent from three-point range and 83 percent from the free-throw line and proved to Miller his toughness with his durability. He played every game, led his team in rebounding, was second in minutes played and missed one of 104 practices all season.
He also improved defensively, coach and player both said.
“I thought I got a lot better as the season went on,” Markkanen told Sirius/XM NBA Radio last month. “I was a lot better in March Madness than I was in November.”
When asked about the perception that Markkanen is limited and soft, Miller said, “That’s the furthest thing from the truth. He works hard. He played hurt. He competes when the game gets tough and when games matter most. He’s not a bruiser at 7-foot tall, but you can’t be as exceptional a shooter and as skilled as he is and almost be a monster.
“He’s not skinny by any means, and he’s the furthest thing from soft. That’s nothing but stereotyping a shooter because of his size.”
Everybody, though, has an opinion.
Color Oregon junior forward Jordan Bell unimpressed after his team’s defenders switched on nearly every screen and limited Markkanen to 7.5 points in two games last season. The Ducks won big at home the first time, lost in the Pac 12 title game the second.
“He’s a very good three-point shooter,” Bell said when asked specifically about Markkanen’s toughness. “We took him out of the game every time. I didn’t think he was very tough. But Dirk [Nowitzki] isn’t really considered a defensive player, either. It’s very hard to stop his size and shooting ability. If he just watches and develops that one-leg, lean-back shot like Dirk, he can last a long time in the league.”
He improved defensively and in other areas, too, during his one season far away from home.
“I think I got better at small talk,” he said the day he declared for the draft in April. “Finnish people are a little bit more shy, you know?”