Utah Jazz rookie Walker Kessler proves both a good player and a nascent media darling

How ’Bout This Jazz newsletter: The rookie center is starring on the court and in the interview room. Plus, Collin Sexton gets contemplative, and Salt Lake City nightlife — and day life — is invoked … in a good way.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) as the Utah Jazz host the Dallas Mavericks, NBA preseason basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022.

Feels like after a 12-point, 10-rebound, 5-for-5 shooting debut performance in Wednesday’s win, Utah Jazz rookie center Walker Kessler is already becoming popular among teammates and fans.

He’s assuredly already beloved by the beat writers covering the team because he’s not yet cynical enough to not be honest and open and a bit unfiltered in his remarks.

Take Wednesday night’s postgame session, where he delved into an alleged “apology” to doppelgänger coach Will Hardy, his first-game jitters, even discussing a nickname he’s not particularly fond of.

First off, the apology. Hardy cracked reporters up when he revealed that Kessler approached him in the immediate aftermath of the victory over Denver and offered a mea culpa for his 0-of-2 performance at the free-throw line.

“He’s such a great kid — he apologized at the end of the game for his free throws,” Hardy recounted. “I was like, ‘Dude, you played great. Don’t worry about it. You don’t ever need to apologize to me for missing free throws.’ But that’s just the kind of kid that he is.”

Naturally, Kessler was asked about it, and laughingly took issue with the characterization of the interaction.

“OK — I didn’t apologize! I just made a statement: ‘Coach, I gotta hit more free throws.’ Does that sound like an apology?” he asked.

Told that it kind of does, he smiled and deadpanned, “Well, there goes the media, twisting my words.”

Meanwhile, he was equally entertaining when asked about what his emotions were going into his first professional game, though in a more endearing way.

“I don’t know if you can tell, but my voice is a little shaky right now. It would be cool if I said, ‘Yeah man, I was chill,’ but I was nervous. I was super-nervous. Really excited,” he admitted. “My whole life I’ve been dreaming of this moment, and then to finally be in this situation, to play my first NBA game — a lot of emotions. My mom was in the stands, so that was really cool. [She’s] probably gonna have to come to more games now. I’m going to have to make her. But yeah, a lot of feelings, a lot of emotions, overall just a lot of joy.”

As for the nickname bit, well, that happened in the locker room before Kessler’s official interview had even begun.

As he finished dressing and prepared to head into the interview room, Rudy Gay, standing nearby, greeted him by yelling “Walker, Texas Ranger!” as Kessler walked past. When the rookie was later asked if that’s a common occurrence, he sighed and conceded it is, though the nickname is sometimes altered to “Walker Kessler Ranger.” He added that it predates his time with the Jazz, noting that at Auburn, he was actually gifted a cowboy hat by a teammate, just to drive home the persona.

Book reader and charge-taker

As new guard Collin Sexton was getting set to answer questions postgame, he pulled a book out of his locker postgame and was holding it all throughout his interview. I asked him afterwards what it was, and he held up “Can’t Hurt Me,” the memoir of retired United States Navy SEAL turned ultra-marathon runner and motivational speaker David Goggins.

As my only real experience with hearing about NBA players reading books revolved around the motivational tactics of Phil Jackson, I asked Sexton if he is an avid reader. He told me that wasn’t always the case, but that he became one last season when he was injured, and found it an effective means of soothing and centering him.

As for his efforts in the game, yes, he scored a team-high 20 off the bench, but his biggest moment was taking a charge from Nuggets center and reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic.

“I’m [going to] sacrifice my body, regardless. It was the perfect time for me to sit in there and just take it, chest to chest, and if he ran me over, he ran me over, and we’ll worry about the soreness and worry about everything afterwards,” Sexton recounted. “But I wanted to take a chance, regardless [of] if it was a block or not. I seen him coming up the floor, and … I knew his brakes ain’t that well.”

SLC ‘nightlife’ … and day life, too

Basketball people not knowing what to do in Salt Lake City isn’t a new thing, as anyone who remembers the Golden State Warriors’ infamous “nightlife” complaints can attest to.

But this isn’t that. This is a sincere request for information and ideas, courtesy of Catherine Elle Potter, wife of new Jazz two-way signee Micah Potter.

She took to TikTok, admitting she doesn’t know what to do in Salt Lake City — not in a snarky way, but legitimately asking for suggestions that Yelp and TripAdvisor can’t provide.

“We’ve been here for probably a little under four weeks, and both of us are from the Midwest, and the only time we’ve been to Utah is for a vacation or sports-related stuff,” she said. “So if anyone is from Utah, I hope this pops on your ‘for you’ page — can you drop suggestions for hikes to go on, places to get food, entertainment, stuff to do in the fall, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”

Jazz fans, and Utahns, do your thing.