Like many rookies, it didn’t take long after making his professional debut for Lauri Markkanen to realize he would need to put on some weight to help withstand the physical demands of the NBA. Last summer, the 21-year-old Bulls forward split his first offseason between the weight room and the dinner table, eventually packing on 20 additional pounds to his seven-foot frame—oftentimes by reminding himself to eat a little bit more, even when he wasn’t hungry. As his sophomore season comes to a close, he admits that he’s still figuring out how to maintain the additional weight.
His efforts have paid off on the court, though, where his nightly averages of almost 19 points and 9 rebounds have made him one of the few bright spots in (another) rebuilding year in Chicago. We recently sat down with Markkanen to discuss the adjustment from his traditional traditional Finnish diet to American cuisine; how he managed a summer of gorging himself; and why he’s so reluctant to follow his peers’ lead and hire a personal chef.
GQ: You’re very regimented when it comes to what you put in your body. Did growing up with parents who were athletes [Ed. note: Both mom and dad played for the Finnish national team] help you develop those habits early?
Lauri Markkanen: In Finland, they eat really healthy foods, so that’s how I grew up. My senior year of high school, I began living by myself, which was a learning experience for me. I didn’t have great habits at that time. There were long days, and not enough time to eat like I was used to. It was easy to just buy something quick. I didn’t go to McDonald’s or anything like that, and I still ate pretty healthy, but I just not as good.
How conscious are you about how foods you eat affect you on the floor?
My wife and I talk about it all the time. Now, being in the NBA, I have enough time to plan my food. I’ve really tried to focus on that since becoming a professional. I feel like it’s a 24-7 thing. You can do all kinds of recovery, but I think sleep and nutrition are the best things you can do.
What was the transition from Finland to the University of Arizona like??
That was a new experience for me as well. Either I didn’t have healthy food available, or I was running from class to class to practice and I didn’t have the time to eat it. That’s when I realized how important my diet is. I saw that my skin wasn’t as clean—little things like that started to change.
We had good meals in the locker room and in hotels on the road. The pre-game meal was almost like a dinner because you’re eating it at around 5:00 p.m. Lunch and postgame meals were usually bad for me, though. They were terrible.
We would get out of the locker room at about 11:00 p.m., so there were not many spots open at that time. We would go to a restaurant and I would have, like, pasta and some pizza. I knew it was bad, but you know how if you eat a lot of sugar, your body feels like it needs a lot of sugar, and it doesn’t really feel like you’re eating that much because you’re used to it? Same thing. When you get used to it, you want to do it all the time. Since leaving college, I’ve gotten out of that.
Obviously, there are better foods available when you get to the professional level, but now you also have to eat more to get stronger. How did you go about gaining 20 pounds last summer?
During the beginning of the summer, I wasn’t running much. I was lifting weights, and eating a lot. And the meals were bigger. Instead of having a snack at night, I would eat a full meal. I was never hungry. I was eating even when I was full. There were times where I didn’t feel like eating, but I knew that that's what was best for my body.
Right now, I’m down on my weight because our schedule is tough. That’s one thing I have to work on, especially for next year, because I think I’m going to put on a little weight this summer as well. I have to maintain my diet to keep the weight up during the season, so I don’t have to repeat this process every summer.
It seems like you’re moving better this season, even though you’re bigger than you were last season.
The funny thing is that I feel lighter. Even playing at 15 pounds heavier, it’s mostly on my legs, and I’m still running. I was at 240 to start the season. I’m at 235 now, which is better than 222, which is how I ended last season. Like I say, it can be hard to maintain weight with our schedule. I don’t have a chef because my wife and I like to cook, but I’m going to have to consider that for next year.
I’ve seen you at the grocery store a few times and have always wondered why don’t you have a chef.
Everyone tells me, “You can’t go to grocery stores like that here.” But I try to live as normally as possible. Me, my wife, and the baby will go to Whole Foods. That’s why I haven’t needed a chef—because we both like to cook. It’s a priority for me to take care of my body, and I love to be with my family at the same time.
What does your game day routine look like?
We have breakfast provided for us at the gym, but breakfast is usually me and my wife’s time together. It’s a routine for us to eat oatmeal in the morning at home. With me being away so much, we always look to find family time.
After that, I’ll come to the gym and have an omelet with spinach and mushrooms—no cheese or meat. I’ll also have a protein shake with oatmeal in it. If I’m having carbs, I’ll have waffles or a couple of pancakes to help maintain my weight. After shootaround, I’ll have some kind of light pasta salad, and then go take my nap.
After waking up, I have pasta with chicken and marinara. Then it’s on to the game. Afterwards, we order something from the kitchen, and that's whatever I’m feeling that day. Normally, it’s something like salmon and sweet potatoes.
Have you found the closest thing to Finnish food in Chicago yet?
I wouldn’t say it’s close to Finnish food, but we found Vapiano, and that’s a pretty good spot. If we don’t want to go downtown to get it, we just have Postmates deliver. It’s the pasta—they cook it right in front of you, and I like it fresh.
This interview has been edited and condensed.