What’s wrong with Walker Kessler? The Utah Jazz’s fun-loving big man has a theory

Second-year center Walker Kessler concedes he’s been weighed down a bit by big expectations, an imperfect stint with Team USA, and some on-court indecision, but has vowed to find the joy in playing again.

Walker Kessler knows that his start to this season has been a bit underwhelming.

In the Utah Jazz’s 115-113 loss to the Magic on Thursday night at the Delta Center, the big man went just 2 for 6 from the field, missing several close-range gimmes, and his frustration was palpable.

“Offensively, I had some choice words,” Kessler said afterward. “But it’s just playing through it, and just trying to get to the next thing and still contribute to the team — regardless of if I can’t make a two-foot layup.”

Choice words from Walker Kessler? Really?! What kind of foul-mouthed, mother-offending obscenities are we talking about here? Shoot? Dang? Dadgummit?

“No! Like, I say, ‘Geez Louise,’ and ‘Gosh,’ and ‘Golly,’” he conceded later, laughing at the absurdity. “I have never said ‘Dadgummit’ in my life!”

Sure he hasn’t.

Regardless, the actual words are less relevant than the actions and emotions driving them, and that’s where the problem has been.

Kessler is cognizant of the expectations that have been foisted upon him — including by himself — and so too is acutely aware of the pressure that comes with it.

After being named to the All-Rookie First Team, and then being elevated to the Team USA squad that played in the FIBA World Cup this summer, the affable big man was suddenly the source material for pundits’ predictions, with bold declarations of a massive sophomore season to come suddenly all the rage.

He’ll become a floor-spacing 3-point menace. He’ll be a rim-protecting force vying for Defensive Player of the Year honors.

But through the first handful of games, Kessler’s points, rebounds, blocks, assists, and field-goal percentage are all down from last season, while his turnovers are up.

A small sample size, sure, but it’s been apparent to anyone watching that the big man has not quite found his groove yet.

It’s apparent to him, too, for that matter. Postgame, he acknowledged and spoke about the struggles he’s experienced early in his sophomore campaign.

“Yeah, you know, I think I gotta get back to just having fun,” Kessler said. “Because at the end of the day, it is a game. I’ve got to have fun competing and playing with my teammates and enjoy that, because that’s when I have my most productive games — when I’m trying to win and trying to have fun.”

He acknowledged that his summer was a long and not always enjoyable one. The Team USA experience was ultimately valuable, but also sometimes frustrating, as he tried to navigate a lack of playing time and find some kind of role to keep himself engaged.

Once the NBA season began, he figured it would be just like last season. But it hasn’t been.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) as the Utah Jazz host the Memphis Grizzlies, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023.

The mounting pressure to take the proverbial next step has weighed on him, and as a result, being a professional basketball player was suddenly no longer the purely carefree experience it previously had been. Which — Kessler being the apologetic type he is — sparked a bit of guilt, thus further muddying up his headspace.

“Definitely some feelings of, ‘This is a job,’” Kessler said. “But while this is a job, you’ve got to take a step back and realize that a lot of people would love to be in your position, and [so] be thankful for the opportunities you have.”

No one doubts Kessler’s gratitude for his circumstances.

His teammates and coaches, though, contend that he could stand to ease up a bit on himself, worry less about the projections being put upon him, and just keep his approach simplified.

“There’s frustration because maybe he hasn’t finished as well as he’s wanted to, or hasn’t shot free throws as well as he’s wanted to, or doesn’t have as many blocked shots as he would like, but Walker is still a player that helps us win the games and that’s the objective,” head coach Will Hardy said. “So he knows how much we believe in him, he knows how much his teammates believe in him, and like anything, it’s gonna take a good game or two to sort of break out of that headspace of feeling like you’re underperforming. Walker’s hard on himself and we love that about him, but it’s up to us to try to help him focus on the main things every night.”

That’s been the message the Jazz have been force-feeding him.

That as much as he may be struggling with various components of his on-court performance, or with his mental approach, he is still making an impact.

“He’s not somebody at this point where you’re just throwing him the ball and he’s making plays or doing stuff — not that he can or can’t. But I think that sometimes he just needs to simplify it a little bit,” said big man Kelly Olynyk. “He kind of gets in his own head, and it’s tough.

“He’s had a lot of expectations and stuff coming in this league. And he’s really, really good. What he does, a lot of times the stats don’t show, which is hard for a young kid to realize. But anybody who watches basketball, knows basketball knows the impact he has,” Olynyk added. “He hasn’t blocked a ton of shots this year. But he alters so much stuff, they don’t even shoot near him anymore. So the impact he has is far greater than is seen. And I think that when he accepts that himself, it’ll be better. It’s just hard to tell someone that because you want to see the production.”

Which isn’t to say the stats are wholly unimportant.

Olynyk pointed to the Nuggets game — where Kessler finished with 22 points (on 10-of-11 shooting) and 13 rebounds — as proof of the second-year center’s capacity to put up a dominant stat line.

Even if the chill Canadian was being a bit loose with the figures.

“That second half alone, he probably had what, like 18 and 12?” Olynyk said.

Well, not quite — Kessler did score 15 of his points post-halftime, but nine of his boards came before the break. Still …

“I mean, he was unbelievable,” Olynyk continued, “and he can just change a game because of that.”

Which is the bigger point.

Yes, his stats are down, and no, he hasn’t looked quite the same at the beginning of this season playing against fully-stocked and still-engaged rosters as he did down the stretch a year ago, when some teams were putting key players behind glass and worshipping at the altar of the God of the Ping-Pong Balls.

But he can still be a difference-maker if he can get out of his own head long enough to let it happen.

“Walker’s been OK. He’s not where he wants to be, on either end of the floor. I think a lot of his frustration is probably on the defensive end — he feels like his timing’s a little bit off around the basket. He’s watching a lot of film to try to solve some of that,” Hardy said. “But dealing with expectations is hard. Walker’s had a really good start to his career, and I think there was a lot of expectation coming into this year, a lot of talk about Walker, and it’s just not that simple. Walker can impact the game without scoring, and I think that’s where we’d like his focus to be right now.”

Kessler conceded that there’s been perhaps a bit too much numbers-watching going on, which is understandable to some degree — it’s a pretty straightforward metric.

But he acknowledged that he needs to buy into the idea right now that his numbers aren’t telling the entire story.

“I’ve got to stop putting pressure on myself to do so well and worry[ing] about the stats and stuff, and just go out there and have fun,” he said.

There definitely appeared to be some enjoyable moments Thursday, his genteel curse-inducing missed layups aside.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) puts the block on Orlando Magic center Moritz Wagner (21) as the Utah Jazz host the Orlando Magic during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023.

Kessler racked up five blocks in the first half alone. He hauled in 10 rebounds in just 25 minutes of action on the court. He looked like he was beginning to shake off some tentativeness and indecision and regain some of the defensive timing that Hardy referenced.

Even if he wasn’t necessarily conveying confidence about it as the game was ongoing.

“He said at halftime his timing sucked, and he had five blocks. So I don’t know what he’s [after],” Lauri Markkanen joked, deadpan. “I mean, he’s a competitive guy, so I think he always demands more out of himself, which is a good thing. But [we’re] just trying to be encouraging to him. I think he’s doing a great job and kind of battling through it, and we’ve got to help him as much as possible. But he’s gonna be fine.”

Postgame, Kessler had apparently been convinced things were better.

“Yeah, for sure. Thank goodness. The first couple games I was kind of hesitant, not really going for stuff as much and kind of playing both [actions], which, that’s not my strength, you know?” he said. “Am I gonna maybe give up some backside layups? Sure, but my overall aggression to the ball and trying to block the shot [will have an impact]. It worked out tonight. It might not work out in the future, but you keep at it.”

He also vowed to keep at “trying to just get lost in the game and have fun again.”

Sure, the game feels more like a job for him now, and jobs tend to come with stress.

But he’s trying to remind himself that even his bad days at work are, all things considered, still pretty good days.

“It was just kind of assessing that and realizing that this is my dream, it’s been my dream since I was a kid,” Kessler said, “and tonight, while we lost, I had fun again playing.”