The Utah Jazz won the Rudy Gobert trade. That much has been clear since, well, the second it was finalized, and as the regular season has gone along, we’ve gotten numerous reminders. The latest came on Thursday night with Walker Kessler’s big-time performance in the Jazz’s 120-119 overtime win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Kessler finished with seven points, 18 rebounds and seven blocks in what was a highly entertaining contest. In addition to making his first career 3-pointer, Kessler became the eighth rookie in NBA history to officially have at least 18 rebounds and seven blocks in the same game, per Stathead. The league did not start recording blocks until the 1973-74, but since then six of the seven players to post such a line went on to become Hall of Famers: Bill Walton, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning. (And, in case you’re wondering, John Henson is the answer to that trivia question.)
Those kind of stats are fun, but the more important thing for the Jazz is that Kessler has already become a key cog who can stay on the floor in big moments. That ability proved crucial in the closing seconds of regulation on Thursday, as Kessler came up with game-saving plays on both ends of the floor.
“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,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “His length and timing and athleticism continues to stand out. That block on Isaiah Joe at the end of regulation was a huge play. There’s not many guys who can make that play. Walker does a ton for us. I am on him endlessly and then I come back in the locker room and he had 18 rebounds and seven blocks. So I don’t know, maybe I’m an idiot.”
His first moment came on offense. With the Jazz trailing by two and less than 20 seconds to play, Lauri Markkanen tried to go to work along the baseline, but couldn’t get his spinning layup to go. Kessler, though, was there to crash the glass and fought off multiple Thunder players for the ball before eventually tying the game on his second put-back attempt.
Down on the other end, the Thunder got the ball to Joe, who had Kessler isolated on the perimeter and shook him with a nifty move. It seemed like Joe was on his way to a game-winning layup, but Kessler showed off some impressive recovery skills to get back in the play and swat Joe’s layup away at the buzzer.
In 2023, Kessler is averaging 10.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game on 69.5 percent shooting from the field. For the season, Kessler’s 2.1 blocks per game are good for fifth in the league, and he has three games of at least seven blocks; the rest of the league has five combined.
“I think that’s the really fun part about where Walker is in his career,” Hardy said. He has the ability to have nights like tonight where he has 18 rebounds and seven blocks, and our staff and even Walker if you ask him, we think he can get so much better. There’s still so much out there that he can improve.
“Yes, some of that is shooting 3s, but on the defensive end I think he can continue to do more. We gotta continue to put him in situations where he is guarding perimeter players some, we have to switch with him a little bit, we have to try to create defensive versatility with our team by how we use Walker. That’s for now and with the future in mind. I think Walker has the potential to be somebody that you build a defense around. He’s shown great progress this year, but it’s on us as a staff to help him continue to expand.”
When the Jazz made the Gobert trade, Kessler was sort of an afterthought. A few months on, he now looks like the centerpiece, and a direct replacement for the Frenchman. If a younger, cheaper version of Gobert was all the Jazz got in that deal, it still would have been a win for them. As it is, they also got four more first-round picks and a pick swap from the Timberwolves, and a number of players whom they have subsequently used to acquire Talen Horton-Tucker and the Los Angeles Lakers‘ 2027 first-round pick.
Danny Ainge has done it again.