SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty years ago last Wednesday, the Utah Runnin’ Utes began a season that saw them go all the way to the national championship game before falling to the Kentucky Wildcats.
The third-leading scorer on that Utah team was sophomore forward Hanno Mottola, who came to the Beehive State from Finland. Following two more successful seasons playing for the unforgettable Rick Majerus, Mottola was selected 40th overall in the 2000 draft by the Atlanta Hawks, becoming the first Finnish-born player in NBA history.
The 6-foot-11 Mottola wound up playing two seasons for the Hawks, and averaged 4.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, before having a lengthy career in Europe. He now works as an assistant coach at Helsinki Basketball Academy, the Finnish Basketball Federation’s primary institution.
Before this season, there hadn’t been another player from Finland in the Association since Mottola left in 2002, but now the torch has been passed to one of his former pupils at the HBA, Chicago Bulls rookie big man Lauri Markkanen, who was born less than a year before the Runnin’ Utes’ runner-up finish in 1998.
The 7-footer who played one year of college ball at Arizona (Utah was thought to have finished in second place for his services) has gotten off to a nice start for the Bulls after being taken seventh overall in the 2017 draft, as he was leading them in scoring and rebounding entering Wednesday night’s game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Arena.
“He is a very focused individual and has his mind set on being the best player he can be and to become an All-Star, so you definitely don’t have to push him to work harder or focus more,” Mottola said of Markkanen via email.
While Markkanen has had a good start, he struggled mightily Wednesday, finishing with a season-low three points on 1-of-9 shooting.
Markkanen, who entered the league being known as a good shooter (as of Tuesday night he had made over 35 percent of his 3-point attempts on the year), said he’s now balancing utilizing that strength with developing new skills.
“That’s definitely a personal goal for me, just to change the game, be one of those top guys,” he said before Wednesday night’s game. “That’s ultimately where I want to be at.”
Mottola said Markkanen’s success early on in his career has already had an impact on the popularity of basketball in Finland, and the former Runnin’ Ute isn’t afraid to make bold predictions for the youngster’s career.
“I truly believe he can, when it is all said and done, be considered one of the absolute best Europeans ever to play the game,” Mottola said, noting that he still keeps in regular contact with Markkanen, “and one of the best shooting big men in the history of the NBA.”