Utah Jazz’s Walker Kessler chosen for Rising Stars event

Rookie center is among 11 rookies, 10 sophomores, and seven G League players who will take part in four-team, three-game tournament during All-Star weekend.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) gets the block on Miami Heat guard Max Strus (31)as the Utah Jazz take on the Miami Heat in NBA basketball at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday Dec. 31, 2022.

Well, the Utah Jazz will have at least one player representing the team when it hosts NBA All-Star Weekend.

And no, it’s not Lauri Markkanen. At least not yet.

The reserves for the All-Star Game will be announced this Friday. On Tuesday, however, the NBA released the names of the players who will be taking part in the Rising Stars tournament taking place on Friday, Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. MT.

Jazz rookie center Walker Kessler is among the 24 young players chosen to take part.

“Yeah, I feel good,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “I’m just thankful — super-thankful to my teammates and coaching staff, I wouldn’t be able to do this without them. Yeah, I don’t know — I’m very, very excited, very, very thankful, very blessed. I’m gonna keep rambling, so I better stop.”

The 21-year-old is averaging 7.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in just 20.2 minutes per game, while shooting 71.5% from the field. He’s excelled since entering the team’s starting lineup, too — per 36 minutes, his production translates to 13.7 points, 13.0 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks.

Kessler spoke to the media about the accomplishment just a few minutes after the team broke the news to him at the conclusion of their practice.

He was pleased with the honor, but acknowledged being a bit uncomfortable as the center of attention.

“At the end, we broke down and said, ‘Walk on 3.’ I didn’t really like that,” Kessler said, laughing.

Despite embarrassing him a bit, though, his teammates were genuinely thrilled for him.

“That’s lit, that’s dope,” said Jordan Clarkson. “That’s something to cherish, being a part of All-Star weekend. That’s big time. He’s been playing at a high level. That’s a great accomplishment.”

For the second straight year, the Rising Stars event will feature a three-game mini-tournament among four teams comprised of NBA rookies, sophomores and NBA G League players.

The other 10 rookies selected besides Kessler include Paolo Banchero (Magic), Jalen Duren (Pistons), AJ Griffin (Hawks), Jaden Ivey (Pistons), Bennedict Mathurin (Pacers), Keegan Murray (Kings), Andrew Nembhard (Pacers), Jabari Smith Jr. (Rockets), Jeremy Sochan (Spurs), and Jalen Williams (Thunder).

The 10 sophomores are: Jose Alvarado (Pelicans), Scottie Barnes (Raptors), Josh Giddey (Thunder), Jalen Green (Rockets), Quentin Grimes (Knicks), Bones Hyland (Nuggets), Evan Mobley (Cavaliers), Trey Murphy III (Pelicans), Alperen Sengun (Rockets), and Franz Wagner (Magic).

The seven G League invitees are: Sidy Cissoko (G League Ignite), Scoot Henderson (G League Ignite), Mojave King (G League Ignite), Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Memphis Hustle), Mac McClung (Delaware Blue Coats), Leonard Miller (G League Ignite), and Scotty Pippen Jr. (South Bay Lakers).

The four team coaches will also include a couple of Jazz ties, as former point guard Deron Williams and current assistant coach Jason Terry will be joined by Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah.

Kessler said he’s hopeful he gets to play alongside the Rockets’ Smith, his former Auburn teammate. He’s also familiar and friendly with the Ignite’s Henderson (a presumptive top-3 pick in the 2023 NBA draft) based on his consideration of playing at Auburn before ultimately going the G League route.

Otherwise, the big man is just looking forward to a chance to compete on a national stage.

Kessler noted that the beginning of the season was a bit of a whirlwind — being traded on draft night from Memphis to Minnesota, then a few weeks later, getting shipped off to Utah as part of the blockbuster Rudy Gobert trade. It was crazy enough, he said, that he didn’t dare set any goals, let alone dream of being chosen for an event that features the top rookies in the game.

But through it all, he said, he’s sought to keep his approach simple: Try to absorb as much as he can, and try to impact winning as much as he can.

“I’m a firm believer that if you pride yourself on doing whatever you can to win, the rest of it kind of takes care of itself,” Kessler said.