In 1998, the Milwaukee Bucks took an enigmatic German power forward named Dirk Nowitzki with the ninth pick in the NBA draft. By the time the fourteenth pick rolled around, Nowitzki was a Dallas Maverick and just the fourth German player to enter the NBA.
Nowitzki had what was, at the time, a strange yet enviable skill set: the size (7 feet tall) of a big man, the passing of a guard and the shooting touch of a small forward. He was in many ways the first of his kind, spawning a new type of position that is now colloquially known as a point forward or point center or stretch four or five (you could also argue that Kevin Garnett, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson were the founders of the stretch movement, though Dirk was the first international player to make such a sizable impact).
Nearly two decades later, Nowitzki’s remarkable success has begotten a new trend: hybrid big men.
Players such as Draymond Green, Lebron James, Ben Simmons, Ryan Anderson, the Gasol brothers and DeMarcus Cousins, among others, can play anywhere between three and five positions.
Sean Miller and Arizona just landed the next one.
Lauri Markkanen is a 7-foot Finnish big man who, like Nowitzki, is relatively position-less.
Take a look at his box score, and good luck finding out where he spends the majority of his time. In the 2015 U-18 European Championship, Markkanen averaged 18.2 points and 6.2 rebounds, but also shot 41 percent from beyond the arc. The next year was almost twice as impressive: 24.9 points and 8.7 rebounds with a 50 percent clip from the field.
And it’s not that Markkanen only stretches the defense to keep it honest. Three pointers are often his go-to weapon, with pick-and-rolls specifically designed to get him an open look from deep. When he sets a pick, his defender will make one of two fundamentally sound moves: Hedge the player getting screened for, or drop into the lane to prevent the inevitable roll to come. Only, in either instance, this leaves Markkanen the space to, rather than roll, fade out to the 3-point line, where his stroke looks as good as any shooting guard or small forward – high and fast, without a hitch typically found in a big man.
This, in turn, sets up a pick and roll for him, in which he is the one getting screened for. For a 7-foot teenager, Markkanen is surprisingly explosive with deft handles. If a defender attempts to hedge out on a screen, Markkanen can use his quick first step to get through it. If the defender sags back to prevent just that, well, that leaves a 40 percent 3-point shooter wide open.
Miller is a fine basketball coach at a prestigious basketball program, and Markkanen is not the first international prospect with a gifted skillset to commit to the Wildcats. Miller will know how to properly use Markkanen, who will likely even be an improvement from Kaleb Tarczewski, who had been the linchpin of the Wildcats when healthy.
Arizona’s losses are significant, as Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson and Gabe York are all gone. But the reinforcements may fill in and then some.
Allonzo Trier was excellent as a freshman when he wasn’t rehabbing from injuries, and Markannen is the key piece to the nation’s No. 3-ranked recruiting class, which also includes Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins and Terrance Ferguson.
It will be a young team, to be sure, but lately the most successful teams – with Villanova as a pretty fantastic exception – have been on the younger side. Think Duke and Kentucky, and that seems to be the model that Miller will be emulating this upcoming season.
And it all begins with Markkanen. Or, really, it all began with Nowitzki.