Utah Jazz Mailbag: What Is Going On With Walker Kessler?

Feb 27, 2024, 3:56 PM | Updated: 4:02 pm

Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) is congratulated by Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24)...

Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) is congratulated by Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) (Credit: Ryan Sun, Deseret News)

(Credit: Ryan Sun, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY – Welcome to the Utah Jazz mailbag where every week our NBA insiders answer your questions on social media about your favorite team.

Each week we will send out a prompt on KSL Sports Threads, Instagram, X, and Facebook pages asking for the questions you have about the Jazz.

Then, we’ll respond to as many as we can in that week’s mailbag.

Jazz Mailbag: What’s Up With Walker Kessler?

Question: Can you just talk about Walker Kessler? Why does he appear to be struggling this year? How real is that narrative? Is there a lineup/rotation that makes sense for him to be starting? Why do you think he isn’t playing more minutes?

A: Jake thank you for the question and there is a lot to unpack here. First, let’s address Kessler’s perceived struggles.

Looking at his second-year stats on a per-36-minute basis, his averages are down from last season, but not dramatically.

His points per 36 have dropped from 14.4 to 13.0, his rebounds have dropped from 13.1 to 11.4, and his field goal percentage has dropped from 72 percent to 65 percent.

There is certainly a dip, though it isn’t as though he’s fallen off a cliff. I think part of the disappointment with Kessler within the Jazz fanbase comes from the expectation that he would make a significant second-year leap, only to see stagnation, and maybe even a slight step backward.

I would add that I believe Kessler shares in that disappointment. I think he also expected to take a major step forward this season, both in role and performance, and neither has come to fruition.

When discussing Kessler, I am always struck by something Danny Ainge said late last season about the All-Rookie center.

“Walker had a good year, but Walker was surrounded by good players,” Ainge said. “He only had to do what he did, he wasn’t asked to do a whole lot more. He’s got a long way to go in his development.”

I thought that was an astute comment when he made it last April, and helps paint the picture of where Kessler was as a player last year, and where he remains this season.

He’s a stellar rim protector defensively, a reliable rim-runner on offense, and a serviceable rebounder for a player his size. But there is a lot of room to grow.

Now, there have been roster changes that have hurt Kessler, namely the departure of Mike Conley, followed by the arrival of John Collins.

The overlap in Collins and Kessler’s skillsets has not benefited the sophomore center. And, the lack of a true point guard and the team’s five-out offense haven’t suited Kessler’s game particularly well.

But the truth is, no team is going to build their roster around an old-school center like Kessler in the modern NBA.

So, it’s on him to grow beyond that traditional big man skillset if he wants to put a stranglehold on the frontcourt minutes available in the future, or, he’ll likely continue to function as a role player, whether that’s in Utah, or elsewhere.

Q: Is having Lauri Markkanen (bird in the hand) > an increased chance at Victor Wembanyama?

A: We got a lot of questions about Lauri Markkanen this week, including whether or not I think the Jazz will explore trading him this off-season, whether he can be a number one option, and if he’s happy about the team’s direction, but let’s start here.

Simply put, I will say yes, having Markkanen in hand is much better than the 14 percent chance of landing Wembanyama in the lottery.

I’m sure it’s hard for Jazz fans to look at the rookie phenom and not wonder “What if?” But that can’t be the only “what if” you explore.

You must also ask yourself, what if you were the Detroit Pistons who fully tanked last season, including giving away Jerami Grant for nearly nothing in the offseason, and sacrificing a year of Cade Cunningham’s development, only to end up with the fifth pick in the draft, and a league record 29 game losing streak.

What if you ended up with the third pick and drafted Scoot Henderson, only to see 16th overall pick Keyonte George, 18th overall pick Jaime Jaquez Jr., and 19th overall pick Brandin Podziemski operating at an equal or higher level?

So the bird in the hand option to land a player like Markkanen is a very good consolation prize among the 13 lottery teams that didn’t wind up with a chance to draft Webanyama.

Next, do I think the Jazz will explore trading Markkanen this offseason?

Realistically, no.

That isn’t to say Markkanen is untouchable, but barring unforeseen circumstances, the Jazz will renegotiate and extend the forward this offseason to make him a central piece of the team going forward.

That may also shed some light on how content Markkanen is with the Jazz, and the direction of the team.

I think it’s important to remember how little winning Markkanen has done in his career before becoming a member of the Jazz.

Over his first five seasons in the NBA, Markkanen’s Chicago and Cleveland teams had a record of 146-237, where he largely played as the third option or worse.

That’s a .381 winning percentage.

In Utah, that number has jumped to a .457 winning percentage, overall, and .473 in games he’s played.

While there’s plenty of room to grow, that’s a significant uptick since joining the Jazz, and he’s done it as the face of the franchise.

He’s become an All-Star in Utah, he’s set to get an enormous raise in Utah, and the Jazz have started to build a team around him in Utah.

Essentially, he has a lot to be happy about.

Now, perhaps the most important question for the Jazz is whether he can become the number-one offensive option on a championship team.

Right now, he isn’t there, and there are some reasons to think he won’t ever get there.

Let’s start with the idea of a number-one option needing to do more offensively than just score the ball.

In today’s NBA, number-one offensive options are great scorers both on the ball and off, and also tend to be tremendous playmakers for their teammates.

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Markkanen is not an isolation player at this point in his career. Looking at the league leaders in isolation statistics, he’s almost nowhere to be seen.

The Jazz are working on putting him in positions to catch the ball in spots where he can create his own offense, but he has a long way to go.

The same can be said about his playmaking. Markkanen is averaging a career-high in assists this year, and he’s still at only 2.0 per game.

Compared to the other number-one options in the league right now, that is a shockingly low number.

Now, that is not to say that Markkanen isn’t an incredibly productive offensive player. He is the best catch-and-shoot player in the NBA.

And, there is recent proof that dominant catch-and-shoot players with low assist numbers can help championship teams. See Klay Thompson’s remarkable run with the Golden State Warriors.

However, Thompson was never the number-one option in Golden State, and I have similar questions about Markkanen’s ability to move into that primary role.

But hey, if the Jazz have a player capable of being a top-three option on a title contender in Markkannen, that’s a great place to begin a rebuild.

Q: What’s the likelihood we have a top 10/10/8 pick and never convey the OKC pick?

A: Almost none. If the Jazz don’t convey their top-ten protected pick this year, I fully expect them to convey the pick next season.

Unless the Jazz leaned into a full-on rebuild focused solely on playing young players next season, or Markkanen misses significant time, I don’t see the Jazz having one of the ten-worst records in the NBA for four straight seasons.

Personally, I think with a little investment in the roster this offseason the Jazz could make sure they convey the pick next year, and finish with a record that would place the pick in the late teens, if not early 20s.

In that scenario, the Jazz could add another top-ten pick this season, then use that asset either to draft a player, or, use it in a trade to improve the roster, while giving up a less valuable selection next year.

Are you on Threads yet? Let’s connect, give us a follow @kslsports.

Download the new & improved KSL Sports app from Utah’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 on 97.5 The KSL Sports Zone. Find Ben on Twitter at @BensHoops or on Instagram @BensHoops.

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Utah Jazz Mailbag: What Is Going On With Walker Kessler?