The 2023 FIBA World Cup is right around the corner, and while the buzz is rightfully given to the powerhouse squads like Team USA and Spain, among others, there are sneaky underdogs who could suddenly make some noise. 

Though parading a young roster, Finland can be considered in that list of potential surpises. 

They are not a basketball country by any stretch, and the lone notable name is Utah Jazz All-Star Lauri Markkanen. After that, it’s pretty thin as the 26-year-old’s supporting cast has no other NBA talents, and the next best thing are guys who will play or have played college ball in the states: Miro Little, a 19-year-old and incoming freshman for Baylor University, Oliver Nkamhoua, who played for the University of Tennessee Volunteers, and Jacob Grandison and Alex Murphy, who each had stints with three different universities.

“Raw” accurately describes the roster, but in such a format, who really knows? It can also be argued that they are a pretty scrappy bunch that’s led by number one option in an NBA team.

Markkanen has been building momentum for a while now as he is fresh-off a solid season with the Jazz, where he almost led a rebuilding franchise and supposed afterthought team into the playoffs, thanks to averaging career-highs 25.6 points and 3.0 threes per game on 49.9% shooting, including 8.6 rebounds.  

It’s a given that we are in an offense-happy NBA era, and scoring 25-plus per game has become a norm, but his PPG was still ranked at a very respectable 12th overall this past season, and he did it through efficient shooting. He was right up there with MVPs Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid.

His efforts were nicely recognized as he not only earned himself his first All-Star selection, he also captured the NBA’s 2022-23 Most Improved Player of the year award by a good margin.

Anticipation should be at a high as it should be fun to watch a comfortable and confident Markkanen in action. He was revved up by his uprising this past NBA season, and we’re about to see how much he can derive from that morale-boosting campaign.

The one encouraging factor is that the recent jump in his play and production is right after he was written off by the good majority, which makes one see how much fight he has even when the chips are down. Prior to arriving in Utah, his three previous seasons were all underwhelming, and it looked like he has reached his peak and already settling as a good role player at best.

‘The Group of Death’

Finland will be under Group E in Okinawa for the World Cup, alongside Germany, Australia, and Japan. It’s a competitive cluster that should be filled with good basketball, so much so that it is being dubbed as this year’s “group of death.” Here’s how stacked others are: Germany is led by Dennis Schroder (Toronto Raptors), brothers Moe and Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic), and Daniel Theis (Indiana Pacers); Australia has Joe Ingles (Orlando Magic), Patty Mills (Brooklyn Nets), Josh Green (Dallas Mavericks), Matisse Thybulle (Portland Trail Blazers), Dyson Daniels (New Orleans Pelicans), Yuta Watanabe (Phoenix Suns), and Nick Fazekas.

Editor’s note: Rui Hachimura and Matthew Dellavedova were listed as playing in the original article, this has been corrected. Thanks to reader Awee Lagman for pointing that out.

Markkanen has established himself as a high-scoring stretch four, one who can rebound, provide size in the paint and space out the floor with his outside shot, topped off by an ability to carry the scoring load. It’s a game that’s pretty easy to like.

Watch Markkanen and company open the group stage vs. Australia on Friday, August 23rd, 4:00 PM, Manila time.