With just one commitment, the Arizona Wildcats’ 2016 recruiting efforts went from empty to promising.
That’s how big Saturday’s word from Finnish big man Lauri Markkanen was. The Finnish forward committed to the Wildcats during his official recruiting visit, picking the Wildcats over North Carolina and Utah even before Saturday’s Red-Blue Game was played.
Markannen isn’t rated because he plays in Europe, but would likely be a five-star recruit. The 6-foot-11-inch forward can play inside, but is also a skilled shooter beyond the three-point arc. He’s the kind of prototypical “stretch-four” the NBA covets.
There’s no doubt the Cats coveted him, too, with power forward being probably their biggest need in the 2016 class, since they will lose both Ryan Anderson and Mark Tollefsen after this season.
The Wildcats also lost the one power forward they had lined up for 2016 when T.J. Leaf of the San Diego area decommitted.
Scout.com analyst Josh Gershon said UA coaches were recruiting Markkanen as long ago as February — stemming from a connection with UA associate head coach Joe Pasternack — but that the Finnish player became an even higher priority afterward.
Miller even visited Markkanen in Finland last month, Gershon said.
“Arizona did a really good job of recruiting him,” Gershon said. “They were on him early the second his name surfaced. We were concerned about whether he was really a legit prospect and found Arizona was already recruiting him.
“If you’re Arizona, you’re extremely happy getting someone of that caliber to replace T.J. Leaf. You can even make the argument that he’s a better prospect than T.J.”
While Leaf is more inside-oriented, Markkanen has a proven track record beyond the three-point arc, along with the size to play inside.
“Big, skilled power forward on the NCAA track,” DraftExpress’ analysis of Markkanen said. “Ideal stretch four man. Shows some potential defensively as well. Could stand to get a little tougher, meaner and more aggressive as he continues to mature.”
DraftExpress projects Markkanen as the No. 20 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, suggesting he’ll only be in college for a year.
“He’s a guy that the NBA is well aware of,” Gershon said. “He’s very productive. He’s very polished for an incoming freshman. When you’re 6-10, 6-11, and can shoot the way he does, it’s going to be hard to keep him.”
Markkanen could not be reached for comment. He attended Saturday’s Red-Blue Game, but UA prohibits on-campus contact with recruits because of NCAA rules.
Markkanen told Scout.com earlier Saturday that he felt he would have the chance to “play against great guys every day in practice.”
“I think I can get minutes here. I like everything I see here,” Markkanen said. “They showed me everything that they have here and I liked it.”
The timing of Markkanen’s announcement couldn’t have been better for the Wildcats, who brought in a number of well-regarded recruits for the Red-Blue Game.
Guard Andrew Jones of the 2016 class told the Star he couldn’t make it this weekend because of homecoming, while coaches for 2016 forward Josh Jackson and Mitch Lightfoot confirmed those players would also not be attending.
But the Wildcats still hosted, among others, five-star forwards Marvin Bagley III (class of 2018) and Jarred Vanderbilt (2017), plus five-star guard Troy Brown of the 2017 class, all of who sat in the front rows of McKale Center.
According to what Bagley posted to his Twitter account Saturday afternoon, things went pretty well, too.
“Thank you to @UAcoachMiller and the rest of the organization for having me today!” Bagley posted. “I had a great time.”