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Lauri Markkanen, The Art Of Pettiness & A Lesson In Development

The Golden Globes went down earlier this week and one of its best moments, besides Eddie Murphy’s speech, was when the creator of HBO’s White Lotus, Mike White (some of you may remember him from School of Rock) got on stage, after probably a few too many, and began to gloat about his hit sensation of a show. 

“I know you all passed! You all passed on this show! So, yes, it’s very gratifying having this moment”, White drunkenly yelled on stage.

It was hilarious, much like the show White created (highly recommend binging through it by the way) but in those few sentences, he showed us a very natural human feeling…


Pure, unadulterated pettiness. 

Being petty gets a bad rap, in my opinion, because used with intention, it can be powerful. The dictionary definition of petty is “placing too much importance on unimportant and small things”. And while that isn’t the best character trait to have consistently, ultimately, when used correctly, it can be one of the biggest motivators for human beings. Why? Because there is no better feeling than proving people wrong. It is that sweet taste of glory knowing that, despite someone not believing in you or your capabilities, you went out and did the damn thing they said you couldn’t do. There’s no doubt that it’s dangerous – it’s like using the Darkhold in Doctor Strange or gaining energy from the dark side of the force in the Star Wars galaxy – one wrong move and you’re in the deep end. But harnessed properly, it can show some positive results. 

For example? Childish Gambino’s entire album “Awaken, My Love!” was made after someone told him he couldn’t make a hit song. And then he made Redbone. Steph Curry on the Old Man & The Three said that he would read tweets at halftime in order to motivate himself. There are tons of celebrity examples of this – and for good reason – pettiness is fuel for the fire. 

I’ve used pettiness in my own life. Not to get too deep into it but some of the coolest things I’ve done are because someone told me “You can’t do that”. 

I can’t? Bet. 

I imagine that Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen will share a similar sentiment when he receives the Most Improved Player award later this year – although maybe not in the same intoxicated outburst form as White at the Golden Globes. 

It wasn’t too long ago that Markkanen, the 7th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, was a rather underwhelming prospect, dwindling on the Chicago Bulls – unable to siphon any of the star potential scouts had seen in him in his one year at Arizona. 

The long, rangy 7-footer with a knack for shooting the ball had not lived up to his potential and was also being outplayed by his fellow classmen, including players who were drafted after him like Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo, O.G Anunoby, Jarrett Allen, and Kyle Kuzma. What made things worse was that when Markkanen did have a breakthrough performance or started to “figure things out” in Chicago – he was derailed by something: an injury, inconsistent minutes, a volatile coach in Jim Boylen, or not seeing eye-to-eye with the Bulls management on a contract extension. 

To be clear, it was in the Bulls’ best interest to want Markkanen to succeed, become a good player, and in turn, help their long-suffering franchise. Current Bulls coach Billy Donovan actually praised Markkanen’s professionalism recently. There’s no real animosity between the two sides. 

But remember what pettiness is: making the smaller, potentially unimportant things important and using it as fuel. 

In the end, that small, unimportant thing was $4 million – the amount that separated the Bulls and Markkanen on a potential multi-year extension. That may not be a small difference to you, or me, who doesn’t have millions of dollars but to NBA players like Markkanen, it’s enough to use as motivation. 

Markkanen bet on himself, took the qualifying offer in his 4th season, and became a restricted free agent – eventually being signed and traded to the Cavaliers in the summer of 2021 in a shuffling of the deck 3-team deal between the Bulls, Blazers, and Cavs.

In Cleveland, safe from the clutches of Boylen and under a system that, for all intents and purposes could have had the slogan “Let’s get funky”, Markkanen was free to explore his game without limitations. Instead of playing the stretch four, Markkanen was asked to hang out on the perimeter more as a wing, alongside Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley who manned the middle. He started taking more mid-range shots, creating off the dribble a little bit more and was tasked with punching gaps and attacking closeouts off of dribble penetrations by Darius Garland and Ricky Rubio. He was being asked to step out of his comfort zone in a major way and that ultimately helped him figure out how he can contribute to winning, besides what he had learned as a Bull. Oh, and Markkanen’s first game back in Chicago? 28 points, 7 rebounds, 5 threes, a steal, and a block. 

In one season, Markkanen had proved his mettle. So much so… that the Cavaliers used him as one of the main pieces in a trade for star guard Donovan Mitchell. Lauri was once again… on the move. 

What proceeded was what can best be described as opportunity X timing X pettiness. 

Once again, prior to the tip-off of the 2022-2023 season, Markkanen along with a mishmash roster of roleplayers on the Utah Jazz found yet again, another reason to be petty. 

Utah, who had sent off both all-stars Rudy Gobert and Mitchell to greener pastures – was seen by many NBA pundits as a clear contender to tank out the season in hopes of landing a top pick in a loaded 2023 NBA draft. In fact, Utah was tied for dead-last in championship odds in the preseason. 

Absolutely no one in the league could have predicted what would happen next, 

The Jazz started the season 10-3 and were well within a top 6 spot in the West for the bulk of the first half of the year. And while they’ve fallen into play-in territory now, sitting at 21-23, the consensus is this; we were all wrong about the Jazz. 

Who has become their intrepid leader and star in this miraculous start? Markkanen. 

In his 6th season, Markkanen has put it all together, averaging a career-high 24.5 points, nabbing over 8 rebounds a night, and doing so while shooting a career-high 52.4% from the field, 41.1% from three on over 7 attempts a night and maybe most astonishingly hitting on nearly 62% of his 2-point attempts. The best mark of his career prior to that was 58% on half as many attempts in 2019-2020. Earlier this month in Houston, he dropped a career-high 49 points while shooting 56% from the field. 

Now, I’m not going to give all the credit to pettiness, Markkanen has, no pun intended, markedly improved in just about every category. His struggles in Chicago and being allowed to experiment in Cleveland helped mold him into the free-flowing, offensive dynamite that he’s been so far this season. 

Buuuuut, this is what he said in an exclusive interview with Shams Charania: 

“The tanking talk definitely feeds us. We hate to see that every morning when we win, we see that it’s a surprise” 

Well, it’s not a surprise anymore. And neither is Markkanen who is well on his way to his first all-star game (in Utah I might add) and potentially can even claim the Most Improved Player award at the end of the season. 

A petty king. 

However, perhaps Markkanen’s story, above all else is a lesson in 2 things: 

The first is the powerful tool of pettiness and how athletes use the smallest of things to help motivate themselves. 

And second, that growth isn’t linear. Development isn’t a step-by-step process that only yields positive results. It’s a matter of failing, learning from those failures, and then adapting to become better. It’s an exercise in adventure. It’s wandering the wilderness to find out who you are. 

We see that right now, with players like Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley, two highly-touted prospects who set incredibly high expectations for themselves after superb rookie seasons, who are now heavily scrutinized by NBA media members in just their second season because of those expectations. 

Stumbling your way through something is, in fact, natural and totally part of the evolutionary process in every player and person. 

And if we end up giving up on players (or people for that matter) too quickly, they may never end up turning into a Markkanen.

Or we may never get White Lotus from Mike White, or Redbone by Childish Gambino. 

On the other hand, it might just be those skeptics and doubters, that somehow help move the process along; by manufacturing pettiness in these players. And if anything, help keep them motivated to do one thing… 

Prove you wrong.