Rookie Walker Kessler got his NBA career off to a strong start when he tallied a double-double in his first game for the Utah Jazz, the second team to trade for him before opening night after he was selected 22nd overall by the Memphis Grizzlies.
While he has had some moments since his debut, Kessler produced the best overall performance of his career on Friday. He will look to follow it up when the Jazz play host to the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday in Salt Lake City.
The 7-footer scored a career-high 20 points on 7-of-7 shooting, hauled in 11 rebounds and blocked two shots to help the Jazz earn a 139-119 win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday.
“It was a lot of fun,” Kessler said after registering his second double-double. “A lot of guys contributed. A lot of guys played well and we got the win.”
Kessler had reached double figures in scoring just once since the opener against the Denver Nuggets, when he amassed 12 points and 10 rebounds. The double-digit rebound total on Friday was his first since his debut.
“I’ve still got to lot to learn obviously — a lot a lot to learn,” he said. “But I feel good. I feel like I belong. My teammates and the staff are helping me. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”
Jazz coach Will Hardy, whom some have jokingly teased about looking like Kessler, likes that his young big man affects opponents’ shots even when he doesn’t block them. Bonus: Kessler ranked eighth in the NBA with 1.6 rejections per game despite only averaging 15.8 minutes, by far the less action of any player in the top 10.
“Because his instinct is to protect the rim and alter shots, he can be out of position,” Hardy said. “I thought he picked his spots well (Friday night). These decisions are hard to make in real time. … I think he’s continuing to improve.”
Kessler was one of many Jazz players to play well against Indiana. Lauri Markkanen had 24 points and 13 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season. Jordan Clarkson helped fuel an important first-half run and scored 19 points. Collin Sexton had 18 points, and Malik Beasley added 16.
“Good team win. I’m proud of the guys,” Hardy said. “Those games are hard to play. It’s hard to play when up big for a long period of time, and I thought our guys kept their mental focus for the most part.”
While the Jazz appear to be on the right track, winning two straight after a five-game skid, the Blazers enter the Saturday contest with a noticeable limp. Portland lost for the seventh time in eight games on Wednesday, dropping a 128-109 decision to the host Los Angeles Lakers.
The Blazers have been without injured star Damian Lillard for six consecutive games, and he will be out against the Jazz, too.
“We’re just in a really tough stretch right now,” Portland coach Chauncey Billups said. “You’ve got to have energy and legs to be a good defensive team, and we’ve taken a step back in that.”
It didn’t help that the Blazers were playing their second game in as many nights on Wednesday, having fallen to the Los Angeles Clippers 118-112 in Portland on Tuesday.
“It’s a tall order to come in here on a back-to-back, off a very deflating loss,” Billups said. “This is a challenge. But the guys fought, and they played hard. They just ran out of gas.”
–Field Level Media