Walker Kessler and Ochai Agbaji’s next developmental stage? ‘The right dosage of failure’

The Utah Jazz’s emergent rookies are having some success of late, but coach Will Hardy knows there will be rough patches ahead, and he’s keen to see how they navigate them and find ways to contribute.

Lauri Markkanen has not been shy about singing the praises of Ochai Agbaji. But, with the rookie wing sitting at the next locker over following Wednesday’s victory over the Clippers, the presumptive All-Star very facetiously was not going to let him get too big-headed when asked to assess the thrilling chasedown block of Amir Coffey’s dunk attempt.

“I was so far away that I didn’t really see. It was OK,” Markkanen said, deadpan, before turning to Agbaji and dispensing some advice. “Do that more often.”

The Jazz’s other prodigious rookie, Walker Kessler, also had a memorable runout against Los Angeles, picking off a lazy pass from Terance Mann to Ivica Zubac and sprinting out ahead of everyone for an uncontested slam.

Both rookies have already passed what coach Will Hardy considers the first real test for NBA rookies — making the transition from hoping they can play at this level to knowing they belong. And both Agbaji’s rejection at the rim and Kessler’s steal-and-slam were nice examples of their next stage of progression, finding ways to contribute beyond the areas where they are already performing well.

Still, when asked how he can put the pair in a position to best maximize their skills and keep stacking up successive successes, the coach instead tossed out a new, more philosophical spin on his oft-repeated mantra of progress not always being linear.

“I don’t look at it as you don’t want them to fail. I think you have to have the right dosage of failure, if that makes sense,” Hardy said. “You don’t want a guy to continue to fail over and over and over again — you want them to have enough success that they believe in the process of what they’re doing, and they believe in those situations that we’re putting them in as a staff. But failure is a big part of existing in the NBA.”

Yes, he’d love to have the big man from Auburn rack up 20-point, 20-rebound games as he did Monday in Minneapolis. And sure, it’d be outstanding if the Kansas product continued his emergence by getting (and burying) wide-open looks on corner 3s.

But such scenarios are wishful thinking.

And so, the logical and productive alternative is to recognize that setbacks will come, and to acclimate, and adjust.

“Can you deal with failure in a game and then after a game? Because there can be times where you have a bad first quarter, and what makes the great players great is they’re able to learn from that first quarter and put it away and not have one bad quarter turn into four bad quarters,” Hardy said. “With young players, you’re trying to have one bad game not turn into four bad games. It’s like, can you learn and re-center yourself and move on? I think it’d be great as a coach if I could figure out a way to never have any of them fail — I would love that for them — but I think that’s probably unrealistic.”

Still, their teammates seem to think both Kessler and Agbaji have temperaments well-suited to navigate the challenges ahead.

Veteran point guard Mike Conley praised the big man for ramping up his coverage adjustments and communication, while Markkanen cited his improved ability to get to the right spots and play the correct angles. As for Agbaji, Conley pointed to the expansion of the rookie’s offensive repertoire, as he now is more adept at putting the ball on the floor and making plays for others; Markkanen, meanwhile, said the youngster’s decision-making has taken a big leap.

“You can just see how much more comfortable they both are,” Conley said.

Both players feel the same — about themselves and each other.

Agbaji noted that as coaches and teammates have continued to demonstrate confidence in him, he has, in turn, become more confident in himself. Though he had just four points on 2-for-2 shooting vs. Los Angeles, and committed four fouls in 21 minutes of action, he nevertheless is buying in to making the kind of effort that resulted in the highlight-reel rejection.

“No matter what, whether it is going off good offensively or I’m getting shots offensively, we’re not taking that focus away from defense,” Agbaji said. “Defense being that main priority of why I’m on the court, why I’m playing, why I’m playing so much.”

Kessler dialed up a bit of aw-shucks self-deprecation when asked to assess his own improvements. Just a few short months ago, he “couldn’t screen a brick wall. … Gosh, watching video of me, I did this little bunny-hop thing.”

There was more wide-eyed wonderment when discussing his teammate, too.

“Ochai — golly, he’s been playing awesome ever since he’s gotten this playing time. I’m super-happy for him,” Kessler said. “I know I had my 20-20 game [against the Wolves], but he had 17 points, [shot] 3 of 4 from 3 — I mean, he played unbelievably, too. That lob he caught on the baseline — I can’t do that, and I’m supposed to be the lob guy.”

Sure as he is that both will have some rough moments ahead, Hardy is nevertheless pleased with their improvement.

With Agbaji, he said, there wasn’t one singular moment he arrived at where he felt the No. 14 pick was finally ready for an NBA opportunity, but rather the steady accumulation of good days in practice, of solid performances in the G League, the increasing recognition of plays and schemes to the point that coaches and teammates trusted him to be in the right place.

Now it’s about finding ways to make an impact without needing to shoot, which usually means usefully channeling some aggression on defense.

“The chase-down block — those moments, for us, are so exciting because not only did he make a great play for our team, but it changed the momentum of the game, it changes the energy in our building. Those are the types of plays that our fans react to more than anything, those big hustle plays and toughness plays,” Hardy said. “That really sparked us. And he’s just learning that every night he can find different ways to contribute even if it’s not making five 3s in a game.”

For Kessler, who early on earned a role as Kelly Olynyk’s backup and has been starting in place of the injured big man, it’s now about stringing good performances together night after night, and learning to use physicality effectively and deliver more contact now that he’s no longer always the biggest player on the court like he was in high school and college, no longer able to simply jump over the top of everyone else to snag rebounds or score buckets.

“It’s funny, I just was talking to Walker in the locker room — he had 13 and 11, and I thought he played OK. I’m not trying to be an a--hole to Walker, but I expect a lot from him,” Hardy explained. “… He’s showing that even on a night when he’s not perfect, because he plays with physicality, because he has great intent on both ends to just execute what we want, he still comes out with a great game of 13 and 11. That consistency of approach in physicality is what’s going to help propel him in the future.”