SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Maybe this unicorn story will have a happy ending after all.
Fast-forward to Monday, when Markkanen put on a clinic against his former team as a member of the Jazz.
A catch-and-shoot three-pointer 90 seconds into the game and a layup 30 seconds later. Then it was more long-distance shooting, shot after shot, dagger after dagger.
By the time the teams went into their locker rooms at halftime, Markkanen had scored 24 points on 9-for-10 shooting, including 5-for-6 from three-point range.
He would finish with a game-high 32 points, but it still wasn’t enough to overcome the Bulls (9-11), as the visiting team took control in the second half to pull out the 114-107 victory thanks to DeMar DeRozan’s 26 points.
That still didn’t diminish the Markkanen story for Utah (12-11), however.
“I’ve gotten better as a player,” Markkanen said of his turnaround. “Grown, getting more mature, just seeing things differently on the court. Everything clicking. I’m not saying it wasn’t in Chicago, but the style of play, and guys are buying into it.
“Of course you want to stay with one team. I don’t think it was meant to be at that time. I don’t have hard feelings. I gave it my all when I was there.”
His coach agreed with a lot of that.
”We really wanted to come in and just start fresh with him here,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said of Markkanen’s transformation with his new organization. ”I think last year in Cleveland he had a good year, and with the Finnish national team he played great this [past] summer. So it was really trying to just move forward with that.
”I think right now he’s in a good spot. Our group, our team, fits the way he plays, and it’s great to see his confidence growing. Sometimes with young players in the NBA, you can overreact if they’re not as good as maybe you think they should be, and some are just based on the situation they’re in. It’s nobody’s fault. It just takes them a minute to figure out where they fit.”
Markkanen obviously has figured it out, but that wasn’t the case in his last two seasons with the Bulls.
Drafted No. 7 overall in 2017 because of his ability to stretch the floor as a 7-footer, he instantly was put in the ”unicorn” category, which is reserved for players who have the size and skills to be a matchup nightmare.
And there were signs he would be just that in his first two seasons.
By Year 3 and his first full season under former coach Jim Boylen, however, Markkanen was unhappy with the way he was being used. He was so unhappy, in fact, that twice that season while teammates were being interviewed, Markkanen sarcastically said in the background: ”Ask about our offense. Nice offense.”
By the time the 2020-21 season was underway with Billy Donovan at the helm, Markkanen appeared to be drained of passion and broken. He eventually was moved from power forward to small forward, lost his starting job and averaged career lows in points (13.6) and rebounds (5.3).
Markkanen was traded that offseason, packaged in a three-way deal that sent him to the Cavaliers, Larry Nance Jr. to the Trail Blazers and Derrick Jones Jr. to the Bulls.
He found his way to Utah this past summer in the trade for Donovan Mitchell and has resurrected his career. He is playing at an All-Star level.
Donovan isn’t the least bit surprised.
”I was always a big fan of his when I was in Oklahoma City,” Donovan said. ”I think that one of the things that happened when he came in the league — because he was so unique with his size and ability to shoot and his skill level — it took a little bit of time for some of those players at that power-forward position to get accustomed to guarding him.
”I think he got a little bit of a reputation that he’s got to be physically tougher. I never saw that at all. I do think that some of the things that happened to our team, moving him to the small-forward spot was not his natural position. But I think he’s a winning player.”