Walker Kessler, Ömer Yurtseven play central roles in Utah Jazz’s back-to-back wins

The centers have different approaches to the game, but while the heralded prospect has impressed in his return from injury, his journeyman teammate also was a key cog in the victories vs. the Pelicans.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Omer Yurtseven (77) as the Utah Jazz host the LA Clippers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023.

Starting center Ömer Yurtseven was holding court answering reporters’ questions in front of his locker on Saturday night following the Utah Jazz’s comeback win against the Pelicans, when his backup, Walker Kessler, emerged from his postgame shower and sat down at his own locker a few feet away.

Naturally, it was an opportune moment to ask a player about the guy who just came within earshot, if only to see how sarcastic the response would get.

“He was amazing. I think that corner 3 looked amazing as well,” Yurtseven began with a smirk, referencing a second-quarter attempt that came up well short.

My corner 3? We’re not talking about my corner 3,” Kessler replied in mock disgust.

“I thought it was going in,” Yurtseven insisted, facetiously deferential.

“I did not,” Kessler said.

Amusing as their act is behind the scenes, they’ve also done a pretty mean tag-team act on the court as well the past couple of games, with the two centers taking turns against New Orleans’ resident low-post sledgehammer, Jonas Valanciunas.

And in both Saturday’s 105-100 victory and Monday’s 114-112 triumph over the Pelicans, the duo had a sizable impact on the outcome.

“Those two guys are giving us a big presence on both sides of the ball,” coach Will Hardy said postgame Monday. “… Having a couple of traditional bigs has definitely helped us the last two games.”

When the Jazz upgraded Kessler’s game availability status to “probable” during Saturday morning’s shootaround, it was assumed the second-year center would not only be making his return to action from a left elbow sprain (which he did), but that he’d also immediately rejoin the starting lineup (which he did not).

Hardy’s decision to bring his rim-protector extraordinaire off the bench, in spite of the team’s defense performing abysmally in back-to-back embarrassing losses to the Lakers and Blazers, respectively, while giving the starting nod to the veteran journeyman Yurtseven was perhaps a curious one, but not necessarily the wrong one.

“Ömer’s just aggressive,” Jordan Clarkson noted Monday. “… He’s a tough guy.”

That seems to be a recurring theme with the 25-year-old Turk.

“Ömer’s a great player — extremely physical, extremely strong,” said Kessler. “He should get more credit.”

“He’s super-physical, really strong,” added Kelly Olynyk. “… For us, it was good matchup putting him against Valanciunas, who’s a load down there.”

“He is probably the only player we have on our team who physically, one-on-one, can at least try to stand his ground against Valanciunas on the glass,” concluded Hardy. “Ömer is a good rebounder, but with a guy like Valanciunas, a lot of times your responsibility is not to get the rebounds yourself, it’s just to make sure that he doesn’t get it. And so we need his physicality on the glass.

“… We need him to continue to do all those little things for us,” he added. “It’s not pretty, what we ask him to do, it doesn’t get a ton of praise, what we ask him to do, but it really does impact winning.”

It’s a role that Yurtseven has not only embraced, but come to enjoy.

Saturday’s game, in which he took on Valanciunas, was nice. But Monday’s game, where it was not only the Lithuanian strongman but also the physical freak Zion Williamson, now that was fun.

“Tonight, Zion, I expected him to be very strong, and he was, sure,” Yurtseven said Monday night. “But you hear all these things and then you get to go strength versus strength, and those are the amazing matchups that I look forward to.”

Which is to say, he didn’t feel overwhelmed by it.

And his play reflected as much. Monday night saw him post seven points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks. That came after Saturday’s six points, seven boards, and two rejections.

“Ömer has things you can’t coach — he’s as strong as all get-out, he sets great screens, he plays hard, he plays the right way,” Kessler said.

So it’s settled then — Ömer Yurtseven, center of the future.

It’s all a bit hyperbolic, of course.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) shoots as Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) defends, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans, at the Delta Center, on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

Between playing eight games with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow, then missing the next seven as a result, Kessler naturally had a less-than-ideal start to his season.

Still, while he’s come off the bench these past two games, and played 21 and 26 minutes, respectively, in them, he’s finally resembled the player who was a finalist for Rookie of the Year last season.

He got off to a slow start Saturday, missing a few gimmes around the basket, but finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds, and two blocks.

“Yeah, well, it looks good ‘cause it was pretty bad in the beginning [by comparison],” Kessler said that night. “Play hard and eventually the game will find you. I was trying to force it too much, I just had to really let the game come my way.”

Olynyk laughed at his young teammate’s harsh self-assessment.

He pointed out how incredible it really is for Kessler to look this good upon his return, noting that no matter how much practicing he did behind the scenes, no matter how much extra work he put in with the coaches, it’s just different playing in a game.

The pace is different, shots in individual workouts are always coming in rhythm, you’re not impacted by going minutes at a time where you don’t touch the ball, you don’t have the mental frustration of dealing with a bad call. So it’s different.

“He had a lot of good moments. He’s very, very hyper-critical of himself, which is probably what makes him good and what’s gonna continue to make him good,” Olynyk said. “… He did a lot. Having him back was a huge boost to our defense, our offense, and our overall depth. We really missed him. You can see his value. He doesn’t think he played well, but he played really well.”

Kessler followed that up with 14 points, eight rebounds, and two more blocks Monday.

“That time he was away, he was able to watch and see the flow of the game and how he can affect it,” Clarkson said Monday, before taking a look at the stat sheet. “I thought he had more blocks than that!”

As Kessler and Yurtseven were at their lockers postgame Monday, they were discussing the former’s re-acclimation to game action, the physical shock to the system that hits you in the first three minutes of play before your body begins to compensate.

Kessler said he was feeling good, and Yurtseven complimented him for all the extra cardio work he did during his rehab.

“I can run all day!” Kessler boasted with a laugh.

The two centers have very different backgrounds, but apparently agreeable dispositions.

They’ve bonded on team flights over battles on their Nintendo Switches, with Yurtseven noting that Kessler has recommended many good games to him, but that they’re set to take up Super Smash Bros. again, perhaps on this upcoming road trip.

Asked about Kessler’s personality, he smiled.

“Very goofy! Although, I do like that,” Yurtseven said. “… I couldn’t have known before coming here that he was such a good guy. When you get to know him you see how much of a warm-hearted kid he is.”

While it’s a bit weird and certainly short-term to label Yurtseven the starter and Kessler his backup, the newbie has actually adopted something of a big-brother role.

After being a background piece on the famously “culture”-centric and veteran-laden Miami Heat the past few seasons, Yurtseven felt he could be a bit more of a vocal presence on this roster.

“I don’t really feel like a young guy here. I see that there are a lot of teammates who are younger than me, and that has kind of helped me understand that, alright, these guys may need some pointers in the game, when they’re in the heat of the game or whether they’re trying to get going, whatever it is,” he said. “I’m just trying to tell them what I see and then try to get everybody on the same page.”

The only thing that remains, apparently, is aligning their disparate views on Kessler’s deep-ball acumen.