UTAH JAZZ

Agbaji Career-High Lifts Jazz Over Kings

Mar 20, 2023, 11:13 PM | Updated: Mar 21, 2023, 10:35 am

SALT LAKE CITY – Ochai Agbaji scored a career-high 27 points as the Utah Jazz outlasted the Sacramento Kings 128-120.

The Jazz were without Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, and Collin Sexton, but got strong performances throughout the roster to overcome the Kings.

Eight Jazz players scored in double-digits as they moved to 35-36 on the season.

Agbaji Shows Further Development Vs. Kings

The growth Ochai Agbaji has made over the last two-and-a-half months simply can’t be overstated for the Jazz.

The Kansas product set a new career-high in scoring against the Kings, beating his previous best of 19 points late in the third quarter, but saved his best basketball for the final period.

Agbaji scored seven points over the final 12 minutes, shooting 2-3 from the floor, 1-2 from three, and 2-2 from the free-throw line, and every make was crucial.

The rookie’s first basket of the quarter came with 2:41 left in the game and the Jazz trailing by two. With the team down two, Agbaji nailed a confident three to give the Jazz a 116-115 lead.

After a Domantas Sabonis miss, Agbaji then hit a five-foot bank shot with 2:06 left to play to give the Jazz a three-point lead.

Finally, with 41 seconds left to play, Agbaji caught the ball near half court off a broken play, but instead of pulling up from three, the rookie took De’Aaron Fox to the midrange and drew the foul — calmly sinking two free-throws to extend the Jazz lead to five, and ultimately putting the game out of reach.

“Ochai has great physicality and he made a great decision,” Will Hardy said. “I thought it was one of his better drives too in terms of going into the body of the defender.”

It was an important sign of development for the rookie, making the right play, rather than turning to his bread-and-butter as a three-point shooter.

In Saturday’s win over the Boston Celtics, Agbaji hit a key three late in the game to keep the score close, but made an even better read against the Kings.

The wing hasn’t ever been a prolific free-throw shooter, never averaging more than 3.9 attempts per game, even in a starring role at Kansas.

And yet, late in the game, with the Jazz leading by three, Agbaji went out of his comfort zone, earning a trip to the free-throw line, resulting in two critical points.

“I was telling the other guys, ‘Get to the basket, draw contact because they’re calling to kind of close,'” Agbaji said. “So that was just the read, and just take it strong and physical.”

Agbaji matched his career-high with a perfect 5-5 shooting night from the free-throw line, helping set up his ultra-efficient 27 points on just 14 shots.

Simply being a knockdown three-point shooter would be a huge accomplishment for Agbaji as it would guarantee him a long career in the NBA.

But if he can continue to show his offensive game has more variety, including scoring in the midrange, or getting to the free-throw line as he did against the Kings, the sky is the limit.

Jazz Aren’t Helping Their Lottery Odds

While Jazz fans have undoubtedly loved the team’s back-to-back wins over the Kings and Celtics, the top two teams in their respective conferences, there’s a chance it’s doomed their chances of landing a top-10 pick in the draft.

The Jazz still own the second-toughest schedule remaining this season but are tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves for the eighth-best record in the West with 11 games left to play.

If the regular season were to have ended after the teams win over the Kings, the Jazz would have the 13th worst record in the league, one game clear of the Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Pelicans for a top 10 pick.

Though one game may not seem like a lot, there are three teams (Toronto, Chicago, and LA Lakers) sitting between the Jazz and a top-10 pick with just 20 days left in the regular season.

That means rather than hoping to out-lose only one team in the standings, the Jazz’s hopes of moving higher in the draft will depend on multiple teams leaping them before the end of the year, a trend yet to be seen since the All-Star break.

The Jazz still face a juggernaut of a schedule to close the year with games at home against the Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, and road contests against the Kings and Celtics.

But after their performances in each of their last two outings, it’s no longer a safe bet that the Jazz will roll over against these upper-echelon opponents.

Agbaji, Kessler Should Ease Lottery Pain

While many fans may be lamenting the Jazz dwindling draft odds, they should find comfort in the fact that the team has ended up with two lottery-worthy players from last year’s draft, even if they didn’t select either of them.

Walker Kessler has consistently been one of the league’s best rookies this season, joining Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero, Indiana Pacers guard Bennedict Mathurin, and Oklahoma City Thunder wing Jalen Williams as locks for the All-Rookie First Team.

Agbaji meanwhile has made a strong case for being one of the top 10 rookies in the league since moving into the Jazz’s starting lineup nine games ago, averaging 13.1 points, and shooting 36 percent from three, while being tasked with defending some of the top wings in the NBA.

Regardless of where they rank compared to other rookies, both Kessler and Agbaji have proven they’re legitimate NBA players that will figure into the future of the Jazz roster.

Finding stars in the draft is the ultimate goal, and it remains to be seen just how good the Jazz’s two rookies can be, but knowing they have two players under team control for the foreseeable future, earning far less than what they provide is a major boost for the organization’s future.

Missing out on a top-10 pick would hurt in June, but having two lottery-quality players already on the roster is a significant addition to the Jazz’s foundation.

Utah Jazz Next Broadcast

The Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers will tip off at 7 pm MT in Salt Lake City on Friday. 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.

Download the new & improved KSL Sports app from Utahโ€™s sports leader. You can stream live radio, video and stay up to date on all of your favorite teams.

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

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Agbaji Career-High Lifts Jazz Over Kings