The Triple Team: Walker Kessler is gaining the respect of nationwide pundits and opposing fans alike

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24), blocks a shot by Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes (4), in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Toronto Raptors, on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 131-128 win over the Toronto Raptors from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The magic of Walker Kessler’s rim protection

You know, there aren’t a whole lot of games you win where the other team has an advantage in all of these stats. The Raptors had:

• A 110-83 advantage in shots

• A 25-13 advantage in offensive rebounds

• A 16-8 advantage in turnovers

• A 68-54 advantage in points in the paint

• A 28-14 advantage in fast break points

• A 43%-36% advantage in 3-point percentage

That’s just a whole lot of ways to have the other team beat you in a game. But in the end, the number that mattered most was this: the Raptors shot 35/76 from within 14 feet of the hoop (46%), while the Jazz shot 27/35 (77%).

And who is responsible for that? Walker Kessler.

Seven blocks itself is an extremely impressive stat, of course, reducing the other team’s around-the-hoop field-goal percentage by 10%. But Kessler’s also credited with 12 contested shots, per the NBA’s hustle stats — usually, that’s even a bit of an undercount too.

He’s just so good, so impactful — in essentially the same ways Rudy Gobert was in a Jazz uniform. It’s starting to get noticed around the NBA, too.

It was certainly noticed by Raptors fans. Jazz fan monilogue keeps track of opposing fan comment sections on the website Jazzfanatical.wordpress.com — tonight’s is notable for their universal praise of Kessler as a beast down low.

“Kessler looking like prime Dikembe against us,” or “Kessler is like a kraken,” or “Walker Kessler ranger is looking Chuck Norris tough out there.” These are all terms of respect earned, of reputation growth. The Jazz’s rookie is making a sizable mark in the NBA in his first season, and to be honest, it’s winning them games even when he doesn’t play that well.

2. Making passes early to get open 3s

The Jazz took over half of their shots tonight from beyond the 3-point arc. They’ve only done that twice so far this season beyond this game, but they usually get pretty close: they average 41.5% of their shots from deep, which ranks fourth in the NBA.

So frequently, I think of threes as players getting deep into the paint, then kicking it out. But watch all 17 of the Jazz’s threes tonight: only one comes from a pass within 10 feet or so of the rim.

Instead, Mike Conley and others are assisting threes from outside of the arc or just inside of it. And this has a number of ancillary benefits.

First, when a pass is made around the free-throw line, you just have more options. The corners and wings are both available, as is potentially a pick-and-pop kick back. When a pass comes from down deep, there are sure to be big men around one side or the other blocking that pass; even more likely is that your momentum down low makes passing all the way up to the wings much harder.

Second, driving deep into the paint is a turnover-laden process. It requires at least one more dribble, likely in traffic, giving the defenders the opportunity to swipe. It also gives the other team more time to recover and anticipate or switch out on likely 3-point shooters.

Disciplined defenses, though, can do a better job about knowing personnel. Mike Conley had a terrific game tonight, but he’s much more frequently going to pass in his pick and roll drives than he is going to attempt a finish around the basket. If he does, it’s likely to be a low-to-medium percentage floater. So teams might feel more confident giving easier looks. On the other hand, being aggressive against Jordan Clarkson is likely the play.

When the Jazz are at their best, though, both of those guys are making the right shoot-or-pass read early in their plays. Tonight, they were, and the Jazz ended up with the 131 points necessary to win the game.

3. Being wrong about Lauri

On the eve of Lauri Markkanen likely being named an All-Star, I decided to go back to what I said about Markkanen in the immediate wake of the Jazz’s trade for him in the Donovan Mitchell deal. I was in Norway at the time on vacation — we had no idea when that deal would actually happen! — so I didn’t write much immediately. I did, though, go on the radio to talk about it briefly, at around midnight in Europe.

Mostly, the discussion was about Donovan Mitchell, Ochai Agbaji, the picks the Jazz got, the fact that they snubbed the Knicks, and what they might do moving forward. But about Markkanen, I said:

“I don’t love paying Lauri Markkanen $34 million for the next two years, and I don’t love paying Collin Sexton 4-years, $72 million. I think those are big contracts for guys who have defensive issues on both of those guys, and kind of positional questions. You’re not really sure if Markkanen is a 3 or a 4, you’re not really sure if Sexton’s a 1 or a 2.”

Well, I might have been right on Sexton. I was not at all right on Markkanen. I was about as wrong as can be. Heck, by referring to Markkanen’s contract as only a 2-year deal, I was even implying that the Jazz might look to take advantage of the partially guaranteed nature of Markkanen’s final year.

In Sexton’s case, his size really makes his position matter: he’s too small to defend shooting guards, really. In Markkanen’s case, his size is an asset at any position — and he’s taking advantage of it more than he ever has in his career.

At this moment in time, Markkanen had yet to break out in EuroBasket, and simply hadn’t shown the flashes of the aggressive, rim-attacking player he’s been all season long. Now, though, he’s an incredible 3-level finisher who has shown to be an asset both inside and out defensively as well.

Credit to Markkanen for defining his role, by taking his basketball career by the horns, and really standing out. As Hardy said, I’m not hoping Markkanen’s an All-Star tomorrow, I’m expecting him to be. And that says so much about the player he’s become — and what that improvement means for the future of the Utah Jazz.

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