Jazz Rookies Shine In Shorthanded Win Over Timberwolves

Jan 16, 2023, 5:58 PM | Updated: Jan 17, 2023, 10:07 am

SALT LAKE CITY – Walker Kessler and Ochai Agbaji had massive games for the Utah Jazz who stunned the Minnesota Timberwolves with a 126-125 victory.

Both teams were playing shorthanded as the Jazz were without Lauri Markkanen and Kelly Olynyk, while the Timberwolves entered the game without Karl-Anthony Towns, and lost Rudy Gobert five minutes in with a groin injury.

Seven Jazz players finished in double-digits, led by 21 points from Jordan Clarkson who also hit the game-winning free throw with four seconds left in the final period.

Kessler Makes Jazz History With 20/20 Game

Walker Kessler scored 20 points and grabbed 21 rebounds, becoming the first rookie in Jazz history to record a 20-20 game.

Kessler had a solid first half scoring six points and grabbing 11 rebounds, but dominated the third quarter against Timberwolves reserve Luka Garza.

The Jazz rookie scored eight points, grabbed seven rebounds, and held Garza to 0-4 shooting in nine minutes on the floor.

“Walker with 20 points and 21 rebounds was sensational, he did so many good things for us,” Will Hardy said.

In addition to his career night on the glass, Kessler added a personal best four assists to help the Jazz offense keep up with the efficient Timberwolves attack.

“Walker did a fantastic job of getting into the pocket and making some great decisions for us,” Hardy added.

It was apparent Kessler had a bring future after his record-setting debut against the Denver Nuggets, but the consistency with which he has grown throughout his rookie season has been unique.

Kessler has evolved from a solid backup big man to a legitimate starting center capable of carrying a team for entire quarters on both ends of the floor.

The next step for Kessler will be stretching those dominant quarters into dominant halves, and then dominant halves into more dominant games like the one he had against the Timberwolves.

But for now, the Auburn product is far ahead of schedule, and the Jazz have found a way to replace a true star in Rudy Gobert with one of the most intriguing young bigs in the NBA.

Agbaji Has Best Game In A Jazz Uniform

While Ochai Agbaji didn’t have the best statistical outing of his young career with the Jazz, he had by far his most impactful performance as a rookie.

Agbaji scored 17 points on an efficient 6-8 shooting including 3-4 from three, and added two rebounds and a block in a career-high 31 minutes against the Timberwolves.

The rookie had proven in recent outings to be a reliable threat from the corners as a spot-up shooter, but had his best overall offensive performance attacking the Timberwolves’ defense with the ball in his hands, running the floor in transition, and even shooting off-motion.

Most importantly, it appears as though Agbaji is letting the game come to him naturally, rather than overthinking his next move.

“The thing you have to do is you have to feel like you belong in order to make those big leaps,” Hardy said of Agbaji’s performance.

One major question about Agbaji coming out of college was how he could affect the game when he wasn’t scoring, something he struggled with at Kansas.

Though the Jazz lack some of the top-their talent found on other teams in the NBA, they have one of the deeper rosters, including several trustworthy scorers. That means for Agbaji to see the floor, he has to make an impact with limited touches.

“[I’m] just trying to bring energy in every single way offensively and defensively,” Agbaji said. “Spacing the floor offensively, and defensively guarding their best player.”

Hardy showed tremendous trust in the rookie, subbing Agbaji into the game with four minutes left to play in place of veteran Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and was rewarded.

During the final push, Agbaji scored four of his team-high nine fourth quarter, including two clutch free throws with 1:26 left to play to help the Jazz escape with a victory.

Furthermore, at 6-foot-5, with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, and with upper-echelon athleticism, Agbaji has the potential to be one of Jazz’s better defensive players. Though he wasn’t credited with a steal, he helped force Austin Rivers into a late turnover, helping the Jazz preserve a lead in the final minute of the game.

Jazz Leap Minnesota In Standings

With the win, the Jazz overtook the Timberwolves in the standings, and now own the eight-seed in the Western Conference, while Minnesota fell to ninth.

The Jazz sit just two games back of the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the West and have a chance to make a strong climb up the playoff standings as they play eight of their next nine games at home.

In those eight, the Jazz will face the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday who are one game ahead of them in the standings, will play the Mavericks twice, and will close the home stretch with a rematch against the Timberwolves with a chance to win the season series 3-1.

Jazz Next Broadcast

The Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers will tip off at 7 pm MT in Salt Lake City. 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.

Ben Anderson is the Utah Jazz insider for KSL Sports and the co-host of Jake and Ben from 10-12p with Jake Scott on 97.5 The KSL Sports Zone. Find Ben on Twitter at @BensHoops or on Instagram @BensHoops.

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Jazz Rookies Shine In Shorthanded Win Over Timberwolves