ASU Basketball: From Markkanen to Valtonen – An international pursuit intersecting the ASU/UA rivalry

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 10: Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats stands on the court during a semifinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament against the UCLA Bruins at T-Mobile Arena on March 10, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Arizona won 86-75. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 10: Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats stands on the court during a semifinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament against the UCLA Bruins at T-Mobile Arena on March 10, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Arizona won 86-75. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

ASU basketball’s Elias Valtonen hopes to follow the footsteps of former teammate Lauri Markkanen, even if that means playing at a rival university.

In the United States, young athletes have their choice of a professional role model. On the hardwood, a few particulars stand out. LeBron James. Michael Jordan. Stephen Curry. Each name stitches the backs of top-selling jerseys and decorates shoe designs across the nation, inspiring a path pursued by millions.

Growing up, that idol wasn’t immediate for Arizona State freshman Elias Valtonen. A native of Finland, Valtonen’s basketball journey began at 7 years old, when he joined a club coached by his father in his hometown of Eura. He played five years there before twice moving within the country, eventually settling in the nation’s capital, Helsinki, joining the prestigious basketball academy HBA-Märsky at age 15.

Along the way, Valtonen received many opportunities. He entered Finland’s top-tier professional league, Korisliiga, in 2013 and competed for the U-16 national team as a 15-year-old. It was moments like these that made him “mentally tough,” according to ASU assistant Rashon Burno.

But that path – as rewarding as it may have been – was never easy.

When Valtonen was recruited to the academy, he went alone. He was two-and-a-half hours away from Eura, all while making an impression on a new coaching staff – including Hanno Mottola, the first Finnish-born NBA player – and teammates.

It was Valtonen’s courage that caught the eye of an important friend – former Arizona and current Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen.

“I knew what he went through,” Markkanen said. “I think that’s what connected us.”

Like Valtonen, Markkanen traveled far to play in Helsinki. His hometown, Jyväskylä, was three hours away, a municipality located in the western part of the Finnish Lakeland.

Motivated by basketball, the two crossed paths at a perfect time. With Markkanen being a senior, Valtonen, a freshman, found someone to follow.

“He was like a big brother,” Valtonen said. “He led by example.”

Three years later, their goal of expanding Finnish basketball is on the right track. Markkanen was a first-round draft pick after one season at Arizona while Valtonen took his first step, committing to ASU.

Even though his friend didn’t like the choice.

“I did not tell him to commit to ASU,” Markkanen said. “I can’t handle that.”

Crossing Paths

Valtonen steps onto the court for Helsinki Basketball Academy at a tournament in 2016. Looking to assert his presence,  he recognizes a teammate – the 7-foot Markkanen – from experience with youth Finnish national teams.

As the two share the court, Valtonen realizes what made Markkanen special at Arizona and currently in the NBA.

“He was so versatile,” Valtonen said. “He could go under the basket and then stretch the floor also. He could guard every position because he was so tall and had good mobility. You could throw him any kind of pass and he’d catch it.”

As a leader, Markkanen’s impact was even stronger.

“He was really calmed down,” Valtonen said. “He demanded so much from himself. He necessarily didn’t speak that much to other guys, but he (set) his own example, how he played and how hard he practiced.”

That example commanded a specific work ethic.

According to Markkanen, Valtonen got the message.

“I don’t care how good of a player you are; if I see you working hard and giving your all every day, I’m going to respect the crap out of you,” Markkanen said. “He was working his butt off the whole time.

“Obviously, I saw it, and that tells you a lot about (his) character, just how he works and lets his game do the talking.”

As the season progressed, the pair bonded away from basketball. With Valtonen on his own, Markkanen often extended the invitation to stay at his place.

Valtonen regularly accepted. There, he said, was where the two grew closer.

“I didn’t really live with him, I was just hanging out with him sometimes,” Valtonen said. “We just talked about basketball, we played video games. We just chilled (and) rested between practices and games.”

Valtonen also received insight on Markkanen’s momentous decision – leaving Finland to pursue college basketball in America. On Oct. 10, 2015, Markkanen officially committed to Arizona, creating a gateway for his teammates and countrymen.

“I was anxious about learning a new style of basketball,” Markkanen said. “I knew that at the end of the day, (I’m) going to be a much better player when I have the experience of Europe and the United States.”

He was right. In one season at Arizona, Markkanen exceeded expectations.

As a freshman, he averaged 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds while leading the Wildcats to a 32-win season, capturing the Pac-12 regular season and Tournament Championships.

Following the NCAA Tournament, he declared for the NBA Draft, selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the seventh overall pick before his rights were traded to the Bulls.

Just like he did on the practice floor, Valtonen was carefully observant.

“I think people start to notice that from a country like Finland, people can play basketball over there too,” he said. “He (Markkanen) opened the path for all of us and made a bigger name for our Helsinki Basketball Academy.”

Valtonen’s Turn

Rashon Burno has been around the college game for some time.

From his days as a scrappy defender at DePaul in the early 2000s to coaching a Final Four team alongside Billy Donovan at Florida, his latest adventure with Bobby Hurley was preceded by a wealth of knowledge.

But, recruiting – a role he often dictates at ASU and possesses a great deal of insight on – is a constantly changing aspect of the sport.

“It’s much more of an international game,” Burno said. “You got to be very aware of the talent that’s abroad, and then you have to work your relationships to try to get in with (international) kids just as well as American kids.”

Seeing the success of Markkanen, fellow Wildcat Dusan Ristic and Stanford’s Oscar Da Silva up close, it brought Burno to a realization.

Understanding the success of international talent, his thought became: “Wow, we can potentially go get some international players to help us.”

That idea brought him to Helsinki, three years ago.

After hearing about Valtonen’s performance on the international stage, Burno meticulously studied him from afar, eventually booking a flight to Finland. There, he built a relationship with Valtonen and the academy’s coaching staff, initiating the recruiting process almost two years before graduation,

In that time, Valtonen received another offer from Illinois. He scheduled an official visit to Champaign on Oct. 10, 2017, two days after his trip to ASU.

But nothing could sway him from Tempe. Valtonen committed to the Sun Devils on Oct. 13, reciprocating the belief Burno placed in him.

“I was really surprised that they came to see me in Finland,” Valtonen said. “It made a really big impact for me. They wanted me (that) much to come to see me in Finland.

“Right away, we (him and Burno) made a good relationship. We (still) talk about everything, in life and school, and in general.”

More importantly, Valtonen achieved another milestone. By attending ASU, his dream of reaching the NBA was one step closer. Almost two years after Markkanen blazed a trail in America, Valtonen was about to broaden it.

“I want to be the next guy after Lauri or whoever, opening even more doors for younger kids that are growing up right now and playing basketball,” Valtonen said. “Lauri opened the path, and now, it’s just how big we make it.”

The Process, and the Future

In 17 appearances this season, Valtonen has primarily operated as a role player. Scoring 16 total points, his flashes have appeared in making 50 percent of his 3-pointers and forcing three steals on the defensive end.

While his chances haven’t been extensive, Burno assures that it isn’t indicative of Valtonen’s future at ASU.

“As a basketball player, his best basketball is ahead of him,” Burno said. “He’s really a talent at 6-foot-6 and a half. He’s getting better.”

The process may be arduous, but Valtonen doesn’t need to look far for motivation. Last month, Markkanen had the best stretch of his NBA career, averaging 25.7 points, 12.2 rebounds and over two 3-pointers per game.

Seeing his cohort continue to enhance international basketball, Valtonen is reminded he can do the same.

“It’s encouraging,” he says.

And even if it means supporting a hated rival, Markkanen continues to offer guidance.

“I try to help him as much as possible and try to guide him through,” he said. “I know he hasn’t been playing much, but I know he’s a tough kid and a really good player.”

Valtonen and the Sun Devils hope to sweep the season series against the Wildcats this afternoon. While Markkanen won’t be cheering for ASU, he also won’t be displeased to see a close friend succeed.

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“Even though I’m a Wildcat, I’m just happy for him to be in a good position and a good school,” he said. “I hope we win the game and we’re better than them, but at the same time I’m rooting for him and trying to do what’s best for him.”

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.