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Arizona set to unleash Finnish freshman Markkanen

Roni Rekomaa/Lehtikuva via AP

Arizona forward Chance Comanche was asked what he first thought when he saw Lauri Markkanen on campus.

“That we need more players from Finland,” Comanche said with a smile.

If only it were that easy.

Markkanen might be one of a kind.

He’s a 7-foot, 230-pound freshman forward who can shoot the 3-pointer like a guard and handle the post like a center. He’s a good betting favorite to be the Wildcats’ leading scorer. He will get a heck of an introduction to college basketball Friday when No. 10 Arizona plays No. 12 Michigan State in Honolulu.

“They tell me every practice, every film session we have, at halftime, just to be aggressive, make plays,” Markkanen said Sunday after the team’s second exhibition game. “I’m just trying to help the team.”

Markkanen scored 21 points and had seven rebounds — all the boards coming in the second half — in Arizona’s 78-70 win over Chico State. He made 3 of 4 shots beyond the arc, drained all eight of his free throw attempts, had two assists and one block, and did not commit a turnover in a team-high 34 minutes.

Arizona coach Sean Miller found two things to nitpick — the zero first-half rebounds and one time when Markkanen passed up an open 3-pointer near the end of the shot clock. He ended up tossing the ball back to a guard who had to heave an off-balance 25-footer.

“He’s very unselfish,” Miller said of Markkanen.

That’s all well and good, but Arizona needs him to be selfish. The Wildcats already have lost forward Ray Smith to a third ACL injury. The status of guard Allonzo Trier — the team’s leading returning scorer — remains a mystery amid questions of his eligibility. He did not play in either exhibition.

Arizona needs Markkanen’s scoring and rebounding and minutes … right now.

“This was his second game in the United States,” Miller said Sunday. “He was very, very tentative, especially in the first half. That is to be expected. But in the second half, he really put it together.”

Miller hasn’t had a player like Markkanen at Arizona — a true stretch 4 who is more than just a stretch 4.

“There are so many things that Lauri can do, not only for himself but to make our team better,” Miller said. “He’s hard to guard. He’s not 6-8. He’s 7-foot. And he’s not slow. He can move. There are not a lot of guys like him his age who are out there playing college basketball.”

Markkanen arrived at Arizona after a summer playing for Finland in the FIBA U20 European Championships, where he averaged 24.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.3 steals, shooting 50 percent from the field.

He might be the best prospect ever to come out of Finland, which has produced only one NBA player — Hanno Mattola, who played with the Atlanta Hawks from 2000 to 2002.

Interest is such that Finnish journalist Matti Morttinen, in the United States to cover our elections for the newspaper Aamulehti, detoured to Tucson to chronicle Markkanen’s first exhibition game. Markkanen is rated No. 13 in a 2017 mock draft from draftexpress.com.

Markkanen’s shooting and center Dusan Ristic’s uncommon low-post skill will be a problematic combination for opposing frontcourts. Markkanen alone is. He can take big guys outside and small defenders inside.

“He has to be able to use his size around the basket. That blend is what will bring out the best in our team,” Miller said. “He’s not a rail-thin, skinny kid from Finland. That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”

Markkenen is just getting started, so there are a couple of concerns: Can he stay out of foul trouble while playing post defense? Can he rebound at the rate Arizona needs?

He is aware of those tension points.

“People always talk about my shot and offensive skill set, but I think I can play defense, too,” he said. “And I’m a pretty good rebounder, but that’s what I am trying to improve the most.”

There are no-more warm-ups. Michigan State awaits.

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