Markkanen, Agbaji Career Bests Carry Jazz Past Rockets
SALT LAKE CITY – Lauri Markkanen and Ochai Agbaji had the best games of their careers as the Utah Jazz downed the Houston Rockets 131-114.
The game was closer than the final score would indicate as the Jazz held a four point lead midway through the fourth quarter, but Markkane’s big close snapped the team’s five-game losing streak.
The win moved the Jazz to 20-21 at the midway point of the season.
Markkanen Continues To Elevate His Ceiling
Even before Markkanen’s career-high 49 point performance against the Rockets, the Jazz have been surprised at how well he’d performed during his first three months in Utah.
The Finnish forward had strung together an All-Star-worthy season through 37 games and had helped the Jazz stay relevant in the Western Conference Playoff race.
Justin Zanik and Danny Ainge viewed Markkanen as a key piece in the trade involving guard Donovan Mitchell, but couldn’t have anticipated this level of play this early under first-year coach Will Hardy.
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Now, after Markkanen’s 49 point outing, the Jazz have to be wondering just how high his ceiling might be.
“The coaching staff is doing a great job putting me in a situation to succeed,” Markkanen said of his pay this season, “and my teammates are delivering me the ball and having the trust in me.”
Markkanen is the first Jazz player to score at least 49 points in a regular season game since Karl Malone did it in 1998, and they came at crucial moments.
The forward set a new career-high for points in a quarter with 18 to spark the Jazz to a 31-23 lead after one.
Markkanen has scored in double-digits in all 38 appearances for the Jazz this year, including 10 30-point outings to only 12 performances scoring less than 20.
— KSL Sports (@kslsports) January 6, 2023
Perhaps even more impressive is the efficiency with which he does it.
Markkanen is one of only six players this season to average better than points per game while having an effective field goal percentage above 60 percent. Only former MVPs Nikola Jokic and Steph Curry score at a higher efficiency when averaging better than 20 points per game.
The Jazz rebuild is far from complete, but finding legitimate stars to build around is the most difficult part of that process.
Markkanen hasn’t yet proven his name belongs among the truly elite players in the NBA, but he’s given the Jazz plenty of reason to hope he can get there.
Hardy Gives Game Ball To Agbaji
Before Markkanen closed the Rocket out, it was the fourth quarter play of Ochai Agbaji that gave the Jazz a much-needed spark.
Agbaji scored the Jazz’s first eight points of the quarter and 11 of the first 15 as they pushed their nine point lead at the end of the third quarter to 11 over a five minutes stretch with Markkanen off the floor.
It was an important performance from Agbaji who was reinserted into the lineup in the team’s loss to the Kings on Tuesday but played only seven scoreless minutes in the first half.
Hardy played Agbaji for five minutes in the first half against the Rockets before opening the fourth quarter with the rookie in the lineup in Houston.
“I think it’s obvious who the game ball goes to,” Hardy said after the game. “It goes to Ochai Agbaji.”
— KSL Sports (@kslsports) January 6, 2023
After sitting for the entire third quarter, Hardy drew up a play for Agbaji to begin the fourth which resulted in an impressive dunk. The first-year wing then followed it up with back-to-back three-pointers to keep the Rockets from closing the Jazz lead.
“It’s really hard to do what Ochai just did and he delivered,” Hardy said. “[He] stepped up big time for us, so I’m very happy for him. I think this is a sweet moment here early in his career.”
Agbaji had shown very little in a Jazz uniform in 17 appearances this season. The rookie was shooting just 38 percent from the floor and 21 percent from three despite being viewed as one of the best shooters in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Even with the G League Salt Lake City Stars Agbaji had struggled shooting 37 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three.
“He spent a lot of time in the G League with our G league staff,” Hardy said. “Scott Morrison and his staff there have done a tremendous job with Ochai, helping him understand what it takes to be a pro — understand what it takes to impact winning.”
Agbaji finished the night shooting 4-5 from the floor including 3-4 from the three-point line.
Jazz At The Mid-Way Point
The Jazz have now played 41 of their 82 regular season games and sit at an improbably 20-21 on the year.
It’s a precarious spot to find themselves just two games back of the fifth-seeded Sacramento Kings in the West, and 1.5 games ahead of the 12th-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.
With the trade deadline approaching on February 9, the Jazz front office must decide what they’ve learned about the roster at the midway point of the season and decide whether they’d be better served to attempt to make a push toward the playoffs, or by dropping back in the standings.
On one hand, the Jazz could get Markkanen and coach Hardy important playoff experience if they were to qualify for the postseason in the West.
On the other, they’d rob themselves of an opportunity to add much-needed lottery talent to a roster that is short on high-upside youngsters.
The Jazz have exceeded expectations over the first 41 games of the season, but what they do over the next 35 days will clarify how much they feel they know about the team.
Jazz Next Broadcast
The Utah Jazz and Chicago Bulls will tip off at 6 pm MT on Saturday. The game will be televised on AT&T SportsNet and can be heard on 97.5 The KSL Sports Zone. It can also be streamed on DirecTV Stream and FuboTV.
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