Veteran who coached Dirk Nowitzki and Lauri Markkanen sees similar path for Bulls rookieChicago Tribune — By K.C. Johnson Chicago Tribune
Jan. 11-- Henrik Dettmann has seen some things.
The basketball lifer served as Germany's national team coach when a 24-year-old Dirk Nowitzki helped lead the country to a bronze medal at the 2002 FIBA World Championships.
Last September, Dettmann, 59, and a native of Helsinki, coached Finland as the national team known as "Susijengi," or Wolf Pack, captivated the country's growing fan base with a strong showing at the EuroBasket tournament.
None of that made what happened Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden any less special.
Jet-lagged and jazzed at the same time, Dettmann took a walk outside his midtown Manhattan hotel for some fresh air and then entered "the world's most famous arena" to watch Lauri Markkanen continue to evolve as the face of Finnish basketball.
"I know he's good and I know his potential," Dettmann said, sitting in the lobby at his hotel. "But I didn't know he was ready to play with such consequence on this level this quickly."
This is the story of a coaching veteran, an NBA legend who will enter the Hall of Fame as the greatest international player ever and a 20-year-old who is making his own way. What unites them is passion and preparation for the game they love.
"So I first heard about him when he was in college in Arizona," Nowitzki was saying last week as he stepped outside the Mavericks weight room into a quiet hallway. "We had tons of people here (with the Mavericks) who said, 'Have you watched this Finnish kid?' And I said, 'No, I haven't heard of him.' And I watched a half somewhere on the road. I was surprised how well he moves at that size, how easy he shoots it. He's way more athletic than you think. I really liked what I saw.
"And then he has come to this level and there seems to be no issues for him. His game seems to mesh fantastic. A lot of times early in my career, teams switched my pick-and-rolls. He seems to roll down on little guys and uses his shoulder and jumps over them. He really has made teams already stop switching. If he keeps going at this rate, he's going to be a great, great player."
By now, Nowitzki knows the drill. A tall European player with shooting ability ascends, and he's immediately labeled the "Next Dirk." Never mind that Nowitzki cites Detlef Schrempf and Toni Kukoc as role models for himself.
Even at a mere 20 years old, Markkanen knows any comparisons to Nowitzki are silly.
"There will never be another Dirk," Markkanen said.
This is undeniably true. And yet Dettmann, who is quick to point out he served as Germany's national team coach while Nowitzki's longtime mentor, Holger Geschwindner, worked with Nowitzki individually, can't help but see some similarities.
The drive. The single-minded focus. The ability to accept coaching and want to get better.
"I think you can see similarities. And I'm pretty sure in the future, it will get closer," Dettmann said. "I think Lauri will develop his shooting ability. What's missing from his game that Dirk has, I think he can develop, like his turnaround jumper from the post or midpost. Lauri has the ability to put the ball on the floor. And he's an excellent passer. I don't think he gets enough out of this skill yet.
"He's more advanced than Dirk was at this age. This is nothing against Dirk. That's how it has to be in this business. Players have to be better than the last generation. The development of the game and the coaching is 20 years ahead."
Dettmann's association with the Markkanens predates Lauri by almost 20 years.
In 1985, Dettmann recruited Lauri's father, Pekka, to move from his small hometown of Jyvaskyla and play for Dettmann's Finnish club team in Helsinki, a rarity at the time. Young Finnish athletes made such moves for hockey, but not basketball.
A year later, Finland started a women's national program. Lauri's mother, the 5-foot-10 Riikka, joined.
Pekka moved on to average 6.9 points for coach Roy Williams in a 30-5 1989-90 season at Kansas and played professionally for several years overseas. When Lauri was born in 1997, Dettmann started his six-year stint as the German national coach but kept tabs on Lauri.
"I kind of knew there were some good genetics behind him," Dettmann said, laughing.
Lauri, living in Jyvaskyla, would attend camps in Helsinki but, according to Dettmann, invariably would get sick and have to leave early.
"But we stayed with him because we saw his talent," Dettmann said. "We knew he had the raw material, but he had to get the right type of practice."
The big move happened in 2014. Dettmann, with others including Hanno Mottola, the first Finn to make the NBA, had opened the Helsinki Basketball Academy. With Lauri's parents' blessing, Dettmann asked Pekka for the best restaurant in Jyvaskyla and brought his pitch to Lauri with his appetite.
"I looked him in the eyes and said, 'Lauri, now you have to make the biggest decision of your life. You have to move and get to Helsinki. We have to get you going and practicing,' " Dettmann said.
With his mother taking a yearlong leave of absence from her job to join him, Lauri moved.
In Finland, students have the option to finish high school in three or four years. Until his move to Helsinki, Lauri moved on the four-year path. But one day, he came to Dettmann in the gym.
"He said, 'I've decided I'll do the three years.' And I said, 'OK, now we got the guy with a mission. Now we're rolling,' " Dettmann said. "We got him in the environment with the right training. Of course he had the base."
Again, Dettmann is quick to credit Mottola and fellow instructors like Antti Koskelainen, along with personal strength trainers, for the daily hands-on work they did with Markkanen. But Dettmann carried an ace.
"Most players who are very talented don't fully understand their talent and potential, at least the Finnish players," he said. "The advantage I had with Lauri is as a coach, you have to paint the road. And I could always paint the road that I saw Dirk travel."
Dettmann did so more by experience than direct references. Dettmann had watched how Geschwindner had worked with Nowitzki, refining rather than rushing, pushing but with patience.
"Geschwindner was always kind of saying, 'We take time. We work and you will keep on developing. The goal is not to be good when you're 22. The goal is to be great when you're 27,' " Dettmann said. "That for me was the perfect role model for me and Lauri. Don't try to squeeze everything out early. If you let him develop and work with him patiently, you will get more out of your asset."
Along these lines, Dettmann credited the Bulls-"And I don't have to say this," he added-for how they have worked with Markkanen. Associate head coach Jim Boylen traveled to Finland to watch the preliminary rounds of EuroBasket, and coach Fred Hoiberg has talked publicly about not overwhelming the rookie.
Not that Markkanen ever has appeared so. He consistently has displayed fearlessness in big moments, no matter his performance to that point. He called playing for the first time on the grand stage that is Madison Square Garden "fun." He scored a season-high 33 points and nonchalantly described his monster dunk over Enes Kanter as "just reading the game."
"You talk to Lauri and he answers short. You don't get many headlines," Dettmann said. "But he's always listening.
"And after this October day in 2014 when he said he would finish (high) school in three years, I had no doubt about where he would wind up. I knew he was on a mission. And he was coachable. He wants to get better."
So did Nowitzki, who hasn't seen Dettmann since running into him at a hotel during the 2011 EuroBasket. By then, Dettmann had moved on to coach Finland.
"We talked about old times," Nowitzki said. "We had some great success. I'm happy he was my coach. He was very much into the mental aspect of the game, probably before that became more popular. I thought he always found a good mix of keeping it loose and being tough when he needed to be."
Nowitzki answers quickly when asked if it's a blessing or curse to have every new, tall European who can shoot compared to him.
"It's an honor to have made it in this league, to have carved out a little space for myself," he said. "But you know I always like to say that there were other tall Europeans who could shoot before. Schrempf was obviously one of my guys I loved watching. He was a big guy who could step out. Or Kukoc was another guy who paved the way for me."
Markkanen says he didn't watch much NBA while growing up in Finland because of the time difference and he was too busy working on his own game. Earlier this season, he did drop his guard enough to admit the thrill of guarding LeBron James. And he'll admit to streaming YouTube videos of Nowitzki highlights while still in Finland.
Dettmann didn't mention Nowitzki often to Markkanen, both men say. It's better that way. The example says enough.
"It's an honor for me to be compared to him," Markkanen said. "But I'm just trying to be my own player."
He's off to a good start.
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