SALT LAKE CITY — While the Utah Jazz were practicing on Saturday morning, head coach Will Hardy went up to Walker Kessler, and the two talked. It wasn’t your proverbial come-to-Jesus moment or an intervention. But the impact of the conversation carried immense importance.
Kessler had been struggling with his role in Hardy’s rotation, and that became noticeable on Thursday night when Kessler played 14 minutes in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. So, Hardy wanted to reach out to his young big man and give him a few words of encouragement. Not only that, Hardy wanted to remind Kessler of how important he is to Utah’s big picture as a whole.
“It was a positive talk for sure,” Kessler told The Athletic. “He told me to keep going, keep playing hard, and good things would come if I did that.”
For the Jazz, Sunday’s 123-108 win over the Milwaukee Bucks before a sold-out crowd at Delta Center felt like one of the most important victories of the season. The win put them at 25-26, a mundane record. So that’s not why it was important. The win kept them in the 10th spot in the Western Conference, which would get the Jazz into the Play-In tournament. But this Utah rebuild isn’t about a Play-In appearance or a playoff. It’s about trying to build a contender with staying power.
Utah’s win was important because the young guys drove it. These are the guys who the franchise is invested in. These are the guys who figure to be here whenever the Jazz make their next run toward being a player on the NBA landscape. Utah has won plenty of games this season on the collective backs of its veterans. But now that we have officially entered trade deadline week, it’s fair to ask who will or won’t be in a Utah uniform by Thursday night’s game at the Phoenix Suns.
That Kessler and rookie point guard Keyonte George led a stirring comeback against a Milwaukee team that’s one of the best in the business should go a long way to show that the Jazz have a future that can be bright with the right tutelage.
“Momentum is a real thing,” Kessler said. “When you get the crowd into it, when the players get into it, especially at home, it’s something that’s good for us. When we’re all going and continuing to push the pace and make it hard for them on the glass and in the paint, we can be a tough team to beat.”
Lauri Markkanen led the Jazz with 21 points. Utah put seven players in double figures. But it was Kessler and George who did so much of the heavy lifting against the Bucks. Kessler scored 13 points, while grabbing eight rebounds and blocking four shots and handing out three assists. George scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while making so many of the big shots and plays that the Jazz needed in a stirring comeback.
Kessler’s game had to be satisfying to many. His playing time has been sporadic this season, even when he’s made a big impact over a short amount of time on the floor. And in some ways, the Jazz may need to come to a compromise with what and who he is. Hardy wants to spread the floor offensively, and having Kessler on the floor doesn’t always lend to optimum spacing.
More importantly, Kessler has a long way to go as a screener within the offense. That is a big thing when he’s on the floor. For the sake of comparison, when the Jazz had Rudy Gobert, he couldn’t shoot the basketball but he is one of the best individual screen setters in the NBA, and tirelessly does it multiple times per possession. His ability to screen created gravity within Quin Snyder’s offense, which created spacing at the rim and at the 3-point line. Whether Kessler ever becomes a decent perimeter shooter is immaterial, although it would certainly be welcome. Kessler becoming a good screen-setter may essentially make or break his overall ceiling as an NBA player.
Even with those two offensive flaws, what Sunday night shows is how impactful he is overall to a game when he has the runway and the comfort to do it. Kessler played a bad first half against the Bucks. It was one of the worst halves of basketball he’s played this season.
But down the stretch, he was one of the best players on the floor. Milwaukee simply couldn’t get to the rim with Kessler on the floor. In the second half, the Bucks scored 10 points in the paint. They scored four in the paint in a fourth quarter the Jazz won 40-13.
What Sunday may show over time is that even with Kessler’s flaws, his strengths are so impactful that he needs to have a major role. There were large stretches of Sunday’s game where Kessler was one of the best player in a game that included Markkanen and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That’s a hell of a ceiling for a guy coming off the bench, but it’s something Kessler has shown multiple times in his short tenure with the Jazz.
Kessler and George being able to show the growth needed to be main players in a game like Sunday night bodes well for Utah in a trade deadline week that will drip with uncertainty. Those two will eventually have to do it every night, whether it be this season, next season, or further down the line. But they showed on Sunday night that they are capable. That’s the important part.
George’s game felt like a revelation after struggling for an extended period. The rookie wall is real, and George may have run smack into the middle of it. But, he’s mature beyond his years and has averaged a little over 16 points in his last four games.
“I got back into the lab,” George said. “I worked on some of the things I needed to work on. You have to give a lot of credit to my player development coach (Evan Bradds) for helping me through this. He’s been constantly in my ear saying that he wants me to be me and to go out there and be who I am.
“It’s great when your coaches have that kind of confidence in you.”
In the second year of Utah’s rebuild, you want to see progress and development. And that’s what’s notable about Sunday night. Utah’s two leading younger players wouldn’t have taken over a game in November or even December. But they took one over in February. And that’s the most important thing about a win over one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
(Photo of Walker Kessler: Alex Goodlett / Getty Images)