Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
DETROIT — As Will Hardy walked into the interview room in the bowels of Little Caesars Arena, he peered at a paper on the wall.
It was the pregame schedule ahead of Tuesday's game and it included Hardy's media availability, but something was a bit off. He turned to the people gathering outside the door, pointed to the schedule and joked, "I know we've lost two games in a row, but now I'm interim?"
After Tuesday, his definitely-still-permanent job appears to be mightily safe, especially considering how his offense has unlocked Lauri Markkanen.
Markkanen tied his career-high on Tuesday and scored 38 points to help the Jazz respond from two consecutive losses and rout Detroit 126-111. With the win, Utah stayed above .500 and improved to 18-16 on the season.
Markkanen's starring performance came on an appropriate day. Tuesday marked the first day of NBA All-Star fan voting, and Markkanen added to what was already a compelling case to make his first midseason showcase.
Markkanen set the tone early and scored 16 points in the first quarter; he's done that a lot this season, including on Monday in Cleveland when he had 22 first-half points. Against the Cavs, he scored just 2 points after halftime. On Tuesday, he was key to the Jazz turning a 1-point game at the break into a rout.
Markkanen scored 19 points in the second half and showed he can be efficient for all four quarters. He shot 13-of-20 from the field and 9-of-13 from the 3-point line. The nine made 3-pointers was a career-high.
"I think it was just a really good growing moment for Lauri as a primary option to see how a game unfolds over 48 minutes when you get it going early," Hardy said. "He had 16 in the first quarter; so for the rest of the game, the other team is going to have a heightened awareness to you. It's easy to give in to whatever adjustment they make, and I thought he just continued to push and find moments where he could get shots off."
For the season, Markkanen is averaging 22.8 points and shooting 44% from 3-point range. Those are both career-high numbers — and has put him in the conversation to be among the best in the league.
With the All-Star vote that opened on Tuesday, it gave his teammates and coach the chance to do some campaigning. Though, the general consensus is that his game and numbers speak for themselves.
"When other teams play the Utah Jazz they know they have to game plan for Lauri Markkanen, and so I don't think that there's a whole lot that I need to say that his play hasn't said already," Hardy said.
Those thoughts were echoed by Mike Conley, who made the All-Star Game in 2021. He said he doesn't think anyone even needs to vocalize a case because it's been so clear that he's been one of the elite players in the conference and league.
"He's an All-Star, it's not even a question," Conley said.
"You have to remind yourself that's a 7-footer with the things he's doing," Conley said. "His ability to shoot is one thing, but his ability off the dribble to get to the rim, finish over people and make plays is unbelievable. I'm happy he's able to show what he can do."
Jordan Clarkson agreed with Conley's take, citing Markkanen's "crazy" season thus far.
"He's been scoring crazy, his numbers are crazy — field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, rebounding — he's doing everything," Clarkson said.
As for Markkanen, he said after his showcase in the Motor City that being named an All-Star has always been a goal he's had for himself. He doesn't want to just be another run-of-the-mill player; he wants to be considered among the elites in the game.
And now, he's truly a candidate for that honor.
"It motivates me every night to go out there and play my best basketball," he said of being in early-season consideration. "Obviously, it's still a long way to go to that point. It helps you kind of get ready no matter how you feel that given night — a back-to-back or whatever — to lock in and keep going and definitely pushing you even when you're not feeling 100%"
After already playing on All-Star hosting teams in Chicago and Cleveland, he's hoping to get to represent the home squad this time around.
"Third time's the charm — Chicago, Cleveland and now here," he said. "I mean, it would be special to be in your home city and have the home crowd."
If he continues to play like he has this season — and especially like he did in Detroit — he'll very likely get that chance.