Back in December, as Arizona prepped for a late-night tipoff against UC Irvine, UA coach Sean Miller walked into McKale Center donning a T-shirt that made Finnish freshman Lauri Markkanen smile.
The shirt had "a lot of Finnish words" on it, Markkanen said.
"I thought it was pretty funny," he said.
Markkanen smiled while thinking of that memory, and his adjustment to college basketball. Markkanen declared for the NBA draft on March 30, flanked by his father, Pekka, and Miller. He'll spend the next few weeks in Finland, his first time home since he moved more than 5,000 miles from Jyvaskyla to Tucson. It will be a brief but much-needed respite after a long basketball season that, Markkanen admits, ended too early.
"Playing in the NBA has been a dream of mine," Markkanen said, "so I'm happy and excited to announce that I've declared for the NBA draft."
Markkanen has spent most of his lone season at Arizona projected as a first-round pick, rising as high as the top 10. DraftExpress currently projects Markkanen as the No. 8 pick in the first round. The 7-footer showed flashes of greatness during his one season as a Wildcat, averaging 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game while shooting 42.3 percent from 3-point range.
Miller said he had a feeling he was coaching his latest one-and-done NBA prospect. Markkanen is the fourth freshman in the Miller era to declare early, following Grant Jerrett (2013), Aaron Gordon (2014) and Stanley Johnson (2015).
Arizona is still awaiting NBA decisions from freshmen Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins and sophomore Allonzo Trier. Miller said on March 30 that they'll "deal with those guys individually." Simmons, for one, is expected to leave.
Miller said the inevitability of Markkanen's departure doesn't make it any easier to handle.
"I've been up here with a number of guys and it's obviously a bittersweet moment for these guys," Miller said. "I think it's a dream come true in many ways and yet it feels like this guy right here just got here."
Miller said he supports Markkanen's decision "100 percent" and mentioned that feedback from NBA executives indicated that he would be a high draft pick.
It's not hard to see why.
Markkanen is a 7-footer who can shoot. He led the Wildcats in both 3-point shooting and rebounding, and finished second, to Trier, in scoring. Markkanen was first-team All Pac-12; The Associated Press recently named him a third team All-American.
"It's been a unbelievable year," Markkanen said. "I had so much fun."
Added Miller: "It's bittersweet today, anytime you see anyone realize his dreams and you recognize the bright bright future he has in this game, I'm just happy we were a part of it. He gave us a lot, and hopefully on our end we've given him some things we can always remember."
Markkanen made the decision a few days after returning to Tucson following last week's Sweet 16 loss to Xavier.
"I was hoping all season that it (the NBA) would happen," he added, "but I tried to concentrate on basketball and winning as many games as possible."
Pekka Markkanen said his son has yet to pick an agent. Before Markknanen, the only Finnish basketball player to play in the NBA was Hanno Mottola, a Utah alum who spent two seasons in the league.
Mottola was a second-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks, Markkanen is considered a lock to be Finland's highest-ever drafted player.
"It's an amazing feeling, but hopefully there's more to come from Finland and I think that's going to happen," he said.
Pekka Markkanen only recently accepted that his son will likely be a first-round draft pick.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm too pessimistic; I have tried to learn to find positive things to tell," he said. "It's been pleasant to see."
When Markkanen arrived in Arizona, he didn't know much about the Wildcats, about the culture in the Old Pueblo. His English wasn't great, and he was a little shy.
"I think I got better at small talk," he said, smiling. "Finnish people are little bit more shy, but I just really enjoyed the year."
Shortly after his press conference, Markkanen recorded the latest video entry for Arizona's intro video that plays before all home games at McKale Center.
Soon, he'll be back on his way to Finland, then, soon, to New York for the draft. He'll hear his name called.
"He'll be, for our fans, they'll be proud of him like they were proud of Steve Kerr and Aaron Gordon and all the great players who have come through here," Miller said. "They'll watch him for many, many years, in my opinion, be successful in the NBA."
Added Markkanen: "I'm looking forward to it, it's a big step and a big challenge for me and I'm ready to go and do my best."