Cleveland Cavaliers X-Factor: Lauri Markkanen

As the NBA season approaches and the preseason comes to a close, we’ll be taking a look at the player on each team that holds the key to unlocking their full potential.

For the Cleveland Cavaliers, success this season is probably going to be defined more by how key players look than by their record, as this still feels like a team that is a couple pieces away from being in the conversation for play-in/playoff spots in the East. There isn’t a player on the roster that has more question marks coming into this season than their biggest offseason acquisition, Lauri Markkanen, who the Cavs hope can bring them some much needed floor spacing while also continuing to grow in other areas.

Markkanen is a career 36.6 percent three-point shooter, including a career-best 40.2 percent last year, and for a Cavs team that had some of the worst spacing in the league a year ago, that is needed. However, it’s everything else with Markkanen that remains a question, from defense to what else he provides offensively beyond a spot-up option on the perimeter. He’s not a particularly good connector with a career 6.6 assist percentage and a 9.0 turnover percentage, but he has scoring upside beyond the three-point ball. Last year was, by far, his best shooting season inside the arc, shooting 58.2 percent from two-point range, buoyed by a 55.3 percent mark from 3-10 feet, per Basketball-Reference. That ability as not just a rim finisher but someone capable of scoring from just outside the restricted area is important for his positional versatility and effectiveness inside despite not being a particularly strong big man.

On defense, he has a ways to go, as he’s not quick enough to deal with fours who can put the ball on the floor, but also isn’t a real rim-deterrent when at the center position. Part of J.B. Bickerstaff’s job is going to be figuring out how to make Markkanen lineups work on that end, which many be helped by the fact that he’s likely to be paired with Jarrett Allen and rookie Evan Mobley for most of his minutes, who are both quality defenders. The Cavs invested heavily in Markkanen and gave up their most versatile defender in Larry Nance Jr. to get him, which puts plenty of pressure on the fifth-year man out of Finland to tap further into his potential now that he’s out of Chicago and into the new situation he so desperately wanted to be in.

His presence could help the Cavs backcourt to have more room to attack the paint and work in space, but if the defense is untenable, then there will be plenty of questions about whether Cleveland made the right move this summer.