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“Superstar” Walker Kesler continues to show why the Jazz wanted him in the Rudy Gober trade

“Superstar” Walker Kesler continues to show why the Jazz wanted him in the Rudy Gober trade

MINNEAPOLIS — In the bowels of the Target Center, not even 20 minutes after Utah Jazz won 126-125 over Minnesota Timberwolvesrookie and future Hall of Famer crossed paths.

Contrast between Walker Kessler and Rudy Gober struck at this moment. Among many other and many other assets, these two were technically exchanged for each other. But they share a love of rim protection, fancy dunks, and are constantly compared by Jazz and Timberwolves fans.

On this Monday night, Gobert was dressed in a smart suit, while Kessler was dressed in tracksuit bottoms and Beats headphones wrapped around a hat. He sought to meet his family members who shared Minnesota roots. Gobert, deep in conversation with the Jazz point guard Mike Conleysaw Kessler and greeted him warmly.

“Superstar,” Gobert said. “How are you?”

Both were petting each other, smiling and laughing.

“Congratulations,” Gobert said.

Perhaps it was a changing of the guard in physical form. But while jazz fans long mourned the loss of Gobert and the preceding jazz era that accompanied it, Kessler was steadily ushering in a new era. The dunk is important here. There is a blocked shot. One or two wow moments every night; plays a 21-year-old rookie shouldn’t be making.

But on this Martin Luther King Day morning, Walker Kessler put it all together. He scored 21 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. He dished out four assists and blocked a pair of shots. He recorded the franchise’s first 20-20 game as a rookie and first 20-20 game as a rookie in NBA since 2014. He recorded the league’s first 20-20 game on at least 65 percent shooting since 1993. He did it with the team that traded him. He did it with the team that traded for Gobert. When Gobert left Monday’s contest early with soreness in his right groin, sort of Naz Reed, Nathan Knight and Luke Hartz he had no answer.

“Him and Ochai (Agbaji), they’ve gone through the first phase of their development,” Utah head coach Will Hardy said. “They think they belong on the floor. And that means a lot. I don’t know what they can do next. But they have faith. And this part is big for them.”

You don’t want to compare a rookie to one of the best giants of this generation. But with Kessler, it’s getting harder not to. More importantly, it’s getting harder and harder not to close my eyes and think about who he could have been. His rate of improvement this season alone has been significant. He has struggled with foul trouble, but is starting to figure out how to play without fouls. Sometimes he would berate himself for not blocking a shot or making a basket. But he’s getting better at letting the little things go and moving on to the next play.

He is a perfectionist who resents imperfection. But at the same time, Hardy asked Kessler to understand that defense in the NBA will never be perfect. The boys are too nice. The league is too talented.

But the competitiveness is evident, and it’s starting to drive him in a positive way. On Saturday night, Kessler sat in his locker room at Vivint Arena and seethed. The Jazz just lost a game by one point Philadelphia 76. Joel Embiid hit the game-winner, a one-foot step-back by Dirk Nowitzki, one of those shots NBA players have mastered that is nearly impossible to defend.

“It was a great shot,” Kessler said Saturday night. “I still feel like I should have blocked it.”

Kesler was great against the Sixers. To be fair, he has been great in the starting lineup since his days as a regular starter Kelly Olynyk fell with a sprained ankle. But Kesler was upset that he didn’t block Embiid, of all people, on a night when Kesler was tied with Embiid for most of the game, the second night of the back-to-back.

More than the shocking rim protection, athleticism, ability to impact games for long stretches, Kesler’s demeanor after the Sixers game tells you a lot about him. A guy wants to be great, and believes he can be great.

“We saw a lot of that in OTAs before training camp,” Conley said. “On the first day, a guy tried to shoot from the free throw line and Walker blocked it. It’s just that you don’t usually see guys get to shots like that.”

“Guys were coming at me,” Hardy said. “They said, coach, this guy is going to be really good.”

The elephant in the room is here. How did Kesler end up in the Gober trade? And did the Jazz know what they were getting in a rookie? And most importantly, how did Kesler fall to the No. 22 pick in the draft when he was widely considered the second-best rim protector in the draft, when protecting the rim is one of the most valuable and important skill sets a big can have in today’s NBA?

These questions exist because the Wolves gave the Jazz a king’s ransom for Gobert. Three picks in the first round. Two swap picks. Kessler. Malik Beasley. Jared Vanderbilt. And Pat Beverley for allowing the Jazz to turn him around Talen Horton-Tucker.

Read the last sentence. Look at Kessler and Gober. And ask yourself, would you trade Kessler for Gober right now? In a vacuum, Gobert is still the best player. But he’s 30 and Kessler is 21. What’s starting to take shape is how far along Kesler is offensively and some of the things he’s doing.

Kesler’s offensive prowess may have been part of the reason he slipped so far. In fact, and Jabari Smith Jr, also had that problem, Auburn’s guards never passed the ball last season. Not to Kessler. Not to Smith. It seems not to anyone.

So against Minnesota on Monday, when Kesler repeatedly caught short-handed passes and found open shooters in the corners? This skill was not evident at this time last year. When Kessler struck Kyle Anderson with hesitation and went to the basket on Monday night? This skill was not evident at this time last year. His ability to catch and finish in traffic, you could see it. Soft hands? Threat forehead? You could see it.

As previously mentioned, the Wolves were reluctant to include him in a trade with Utah, and the Jazz lobbied for him to be included in the deal. Minnesota, even knowing they would be trading for Gobert, had high hopes for Kessler.

It’s safe to say that no one thought Kessler would be this good and this fast. Due to injuries last summer, he didn’t have an offseason to work on his game. He did not play in summer league. He didn’t really practice full court or five-on-five until OTAs in September. That’s a big reason the Jazz traded up Boyan Bogdanovich for Kelly Olynyk. They hoped Kessler could be their center of the future, even thought it would be a good opportunity. But, they wanted to bring it slowly. They didn’t want him to play fast in his career against first-tier leaders. They thought he might be a part, but it had to be proven.

Now there is no doubt.

As Utah heads into the uncertain trade deadline year, Lauri Markkanen and Kesler are virtually untouchable. They are without a doubt the building blocks for the future, and Agbaji’s athleticism, his defense and his ability to make an impact on a rookie contract have him heading in the same direction.

These are the events that will make the Jazz win this season, no matter what their overall record is or how the season ends. Few thought Kessler would register 20-20 games by mid-January. Few thought Kesler would be able to dominate a single game this early in his career.

(Walker Kessler Photo: David Berding/Getty Images)

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