Walker Kessler adds some range to his game in latest monster effort

Rookie center makes good on a gifted moment by burying his first official 3-pointer, then gets back to what he does best, with the last of his seven blocked shots saving Thursday’s game.

Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) blocks Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, right, shot during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Utah Jazz rookie Walker Kessler was impactful throughout Thursday night’s overtime thriller against OKC, as evidenced by his final line of seven points, 18 rebounds, and seven blocked shots.

But it was his first offensive and last defensive play of regulation that stood out.

A made 3-pointer off a designed play to open the game. And a game-saving block that put an extra five minutes on the clock.

Coach Will Hardy addressed the former, quite bemusedly, in his opening remarks following the 121-120 victory.

“I’m going to steal at least three of you guys’ questions: Yes, that first play was designed for Walker to shoot a 3. Yes, he bullied me into it at All-Star Weekend when he made that 3 in the Skills competition. And yes, I’m very happy that it went in,” Hardy said, “even though I may have created a monster.”

Kessler confirmed that he indeed approached Hardy to brag after he teamed with Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson to win the Skills Challenge last Saturday night, which included him draining two corner 3s from the same spot, one of which secured the title.

He then made light of Hardy’s claim about being bullied into it — “I did. I showed up at his house one day.” — before expressing shock that it actually came to fruition.

“I said, ‘Coach, did you see that 3?’ And he was like, ‘Alright Kessler, first play out of the [All-Star] break, we’re gonna run a 3 play for you.’ I was like, ‘Hahaha, yeah, you got me, coach,’” Kessler recalled. “But sure enough, he ran the play. … [We walked through it at shootaround], and then I shot it like 20 times after.”

All-Star forward Lauri Markkanen, who racked up 43 points (including 25 after the third quarter) and 10 rebounds against the Thunder, wasn’t even aware it was ruled a triple.

“Was that a 3?!” he asked postgame. “Foot on the line in practice every time. Get those size 19s behind the line!”

“I’m only size 16,” Kessler retorted.

As incredulous as Markkanen may have been, Talen Horton-Tucker — who got the start with Sexton out injured — was precisely the opposite.

“I wasn’t surprised at all!” he claimed. “You know, it was the first conversation I had with Walker [this season], I asked him: Do [you] like to roll or pop? And he told me he likes to pop. So, I’m not surprised by it at all.”

Meanwhile, nobody was surprised by the block.

With the game tied at 106, and 4.6 seconds remaining in regulation, the Thunder inbounded the ball to guard Isaiah Joe on the perimeter, with Kessler isolated on him out near the 3-point line. Joe faked inside to get Kessler leaning, then quickly accelerated baseline to the hoop.

Joe had the big man beat, opted for an up-and-under layup try in a bid to protect the ball … only for Kessler to recover from behind and swat the shot with his left hand.

Kessler explained his approach quite clinically.

“Obviously, he’s an unbelievable, unbelievable shooter, so I had to contest him a little bit. And then when he drove baseline side, I knew in that moment [that] because I’m a shot-blocker he’s probably going to reverse it. So what I do is I attack an angle, attack the middle of the basket, and I go up with both hands so I can contest the right, contest the left in case he reverses it. And then once I saw that he gave it a little up-and-under. I knew that I could block it on the left side. And I blocked it. I think it was the first time I ever showed emotion after a play, too, so I’ve got to work on controlling my myself.”

Hardy has praised the center all season long for his ability to block shots with either hand, and the rookie noted that it began all the way back in middle school for him, as a necessary response to the craftiness of various guards’ finishing capabilities.

The next step, the coach added, is getting the 21-year-old more comfortable with and more adept at defending outside the paint, so the Jazz can more frequently alternate between drop-big coverage and switching.

“Big luxury for us to be able to have him in at the end of the game, because you can put him on some perimeter players, and his length and timing and, really, his athleticism continue to stand out,” Hardy said. “That block on Isaiah Joe at the end of regulation was a huge play. There’s not many guys that can make that play.”

Kris Dunn, a defensive specialist just signed by the team to a 10-day contract, is already quite impressed by and predicting big things from his new teammate.

He was facetiously disappointed with the pittance of Kessler’s production, though.

“Oh my gosh, he was unbelievable. I asked for eight blocks, he gave me seven — we’ll talk about it another time,” Dunn said, laughing. “But unbelievable. And he’s a rookie, right? For him to be a rookie and to understand the defensive concepts and the offense they’re gonna come with … If he’s doing this as a rookie, just imagine Year 4. He could be phenomenal for the Utah Jazz for a very long time.”

That is precisely what Hardy has in mind.

As good as the Rising Stars tournament honoree has been to this point, the coach sees the potential for so much more down the road.

“Walker does a ton for us. I am on him endlessly, and then I come back to the locker room and look at the stat sheet, and he had 18 rebounds and seven blocks. So I don’t know, maybe I’m an idiot,” Hardy said, deadpan. “But I just think he has so much to give, and that’s the really fun part about where Walker is in his career — that he has the ability to have nights like he did tonight where he has 18 rebounds and seven blocks, and our staff and even Walker, if you asked him, think he can get so much better. There’s still so much out there that he can improve.

“Walker has the potential to be somebody that you build a defense around,” Hardy added. “He’s shown great progress so far this year, but it’s on us as a staff to continue to help him expand.”