Some Walker Kessler blocks surprise opponents, his coach, even himself

“How ’Bout This Jazz” newsletter: The rookie big man says he apparently surprises opponents quite often. Plus, Damian Jones gets his 3-point stroke going, and THT learns from the point god.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) blocks a shot by Sacramento Kings forward Trey Lyles (41) as the Utah Jazz host the Sacramento Kings, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 20, 2023.

Watching Walker Kessler evolve from intriguing-but-inconsistent piece at the beginning of the season to full-on defensive force at this point has been fun.

Because of his exuberant personality and generally eloquent responses, it’s also been fun picking his brain about his various exploits — like when he stopped himself mid-answer during Monday’s postgame media session to ask reporters if he goaltended a certain Devin Booker shot, and when he became convinced upon seeing the replay that it was a clean block, he delightfully exclaimed: “Oh, I did! I got that! Geez! That’s crazy!”

Considering that was one of seven blocked shots he totaled in that game — and one of four games this year in which he’s totaled seven blocks — we had to ask coach Will Hardy if there’s some common theme to the games where Kessler is especially prolific in registering rejections.

The coach noted that as he’s examined the film, he hasn’t really come across any commonalities other than some teams simply challenge the rookie more than others.

“I thought [against Phoenix] he just did such a good job of being active, and for whatever reason they challenged him maybe a few more times than they would have liked,” Hardy said. “Two of the seven or three of the seven blocks were just kind of crazy. One looked like a floater from like 11 feet that he got, which I don’t really know what to say about that other than that’s awesome.”

Which is not to say that the games where Kessler hasn’t registered a block — that’s occurred in just 13 of the 72 he’s played, going into Friday’s matchup at Boston — are bad performances by comparison: “Some of the best shot-blockers in the league, sometimes you see where they go through periods where they’re not getting a bunch of blocked shots, and part of that’s because no one’s testing them.”

The coach added that while he’s had to nitpick a couple of moments throughout the season where he felt like Kessler could have been busier, his activity level has generally been very good, as it was vs. Phoenix. Hardy pointed to the rookie’s final block as an example. After DeAndre Ayton attempted to dislodge him with a shoulder, he then went up for what he presumed was a clear path to the basket. Except that Kessler has gotten better at absorbing contact and still reacting.

Hardy suggested that Kessler’s length may have surprised Ayton. Kessler, meanwhile, noted that opponents actually admit to that a lot.

“Yeah, they get surprised for sure. If they see me coming, they’ll pump-fake, but a lot of times they’ll think they have an open layup or something, and I can get to it. So they’re definitely a little caught off guard by it for sure,” he said. “I can’t say exactly what they say [implying there are usually expletives involved], but basically, ‘You’re big.’ ‘You’re quick.’ ‘I can’t believe you got off the ground that quick.’ Stuff like that.”

A new stretch-5 to obsess over

San Antonio Spurs guard Tre Jones (33) drives to the basket against Utah Jazz center Damian Jones, center, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Antonio, Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

For whatever reason, I always love seeing Jazz power forwards and centers shoot 3-pointers. Perhaps it’s the novelty factor, considering I’ve covered a lot more close-range shooters than Memo Okur types.

A few years ago, I was geeked when Derrick Favors told me he was “dead-a-- serious” about intending to make more 3s. And at the beginning of this season, we had Jarred Vanderbilt trying to extend his range.

Now I’ve got Damian Jones to obsess about.

He’s not exactly prolific — 55 attempts in 235 career games. He didn’t even fire one up in any of his first three seasons. And with the Jazz, he’s attempted just nine in 14 games. But he’s made six of them! So I asked him about his burgeoning 3-point prowess.

“I really started mostly in my fourth year when I was in Atlanta. That was when I really started honing in on my outside shooting,” he replied, smiling at my outsized enthusiasm on the subject. “… I always work on it. It just depends on if it’s available, and if teams want me to shoot it or not. I’ve always been working on it, and just being able to have the green light to do it is cool.”

Learning from the point god

Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (0) drives as Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 27, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

There’s been a lot written about Talen Horton-Tucker’s recent exploits as a full-time point guard in the wake of Collin Sexton’s absence, partly owing to his 37-point, near triple-double vs. the Hornets, and then Wednesday’s career-high 41-point effort against the Spurs.

There have been plenty of ups and downs along the way.

That’s why it was intriguing to see him picking the brain of Chris Paul — one of the best point guards of all time and a surefire future Hall of Famer — on the court in the aftermath of Monday’s loss to the Suns.

“You know, just asked him some small questions,” Horton-Tucker explained. “Just trying to learn, being a young player and trying to grow and play a position that he’s almost mastered at this point in his career.”