Walker Kessler extended his go-go gadget left arm and easily sent a Grant Williams layup attempt careening off the backboard to preserve a 118-117 Saturday night win for the Utah Jazz against the Boston Celtics.
Talen Horton-Tucker, growing into his new starting point guard role by the game, got into the paint on the previous possession and scored what proved to be the points that provided the final margin.
On Utah’s offensive possession before that, Ochai Agbaji drained a contested 3-pointer from the deep wing to bring the Jazz within a point.
And Lauri Markkanen subsidized it all, scoring 28 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, as the Jazz rallied from a 19-point first-half deficit and won their 34th game of the season.
As the NCAA Tournament known as March Madness heads into Sunday’s second-round games, the Jazz should probably be losing some of these games to fortify their lottery position. Brandon Miller from Alabama would be a perfect fit for Utah. So would Houston’s Jarace Walker. So would Anthony Black from Arkansas. So would Villanova’s Cam Whitmore. You get the point. This upcoming NBA Draft is filled to the brim with talent. All the Jazz have to do is lose the bulk of their remaining 12 games, and they could find themselves in a position to draft a player who can help them significantly for years to come.
But, Kessler and Agbaji and Markkanen? They are trying to be too good. More importantly, they are the future of the Utah Jazz. They are the proverbial bird in hand. And the Jazz are winning because of them. Beating the Boston Celtics before a raucous crowd at Vivint Arena on a Saturday night? It felt like a playoff atmosphere. It felt like an important game. And if the Jazz are winning games in that environment because of their young guys?
Then, frankly, so be it.
“It means everything that these guys get to play against this kind of team,” Utah head coach Will Hardy said. “You can’t simulate this kind of thing. The crowd. The moment. No matter how much you turn the music up during practice, you can’t simulate this kind of moment. So the fact that these guys are able to play in this moment this early in their careers means everything.”
Each one of the final plays made by the young guys was one he wouldn’t have made early in the season. Horton-Tucker spent much of the year in and out of Hardy’s rotation. Kessler has been a phenom defensively, but he wasn’t on the floor in closing minutes early in the year. Agbaji has done the most to come out of his shell of him. Early in the year, he played mostly in the G-League. And when he did get into an NBA game, he went to the corner and only took shots if they were wide open.
“Would I have taken that shot earlier? No,” Agbaji said with a laugh. “But, my coaches and my teammates have given me the confidence to step up and try and make plays when they matter.”
The result is a Jazz team that’s been playoff competitive for far longer than anyone would have thought. And it’s a Jazz team that has frankly had no business being playoff competitive with Mike Conley now playing in Minnesota along with Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Malik Beasley playing in Los Angeles for the Lakers along with Jarred Vanderbilt.
What’s been left is this: A team that has almost exclusively relied on its younger players to either sink or swim as a unit. And the impressive part is that they have largely been swimming.
There are some structural and sustainable reasons for this.
Markkanen, Kessler and Agbaji are all elite athletes in their respective positions. Horton-Tucker is a good athlete, not an elite one. But he has a 7-foot-1 wingspan wrapped around a 6-foot-4 body at the point guard position. When you add in the 230 pounds he weighs, Horton-Tucker is proving to be a physical anomaly for the position.
Congratulations @MarkkanenLauri on 𝟏𝟗𝟎 threes, the most ever by a first-season Jazzman 🏆#UltraMoment | @MichelobULTRA pic.twitter.com/jGkbNJVqsm
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) March 19, 2023
And that’s making the Jazz difficult to deal with. The length and athleticism that they are playing with on a nightly basis aren’t all that common. In pretty much every game, the Jazz are the most athletic team on the floor, coupled with the fact that they are playing with three seven-footers.
That’s why the Jazz are still competitive playoffs in the Western Conference. Even without Jordan Clarkson, who has missed a string of games due to a sprained finger. Even without Collin Sexton, who has been out since the All-Star break with a hamstring issue. Even with the Jazz playing with a second unit that struggles to score. And even with the Jazz having nowhere near the depth that they had for much of this season.
Their current 34-36 record is good for 10th in the Western Conference, meaning if the season ended today, they would be traveling to play against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Play-In Tournament. Would doing this cost the Jazz a few ping-pong balls and likely cost the Jazz a chance at drafting one of the elite talents? Sure. But, we’ve seen and know enough about the NBA to know that development is not linear.
Kessler is going to make the NBA’s all-rookie team. He’s going to finish in the top three for Rookie of the Year. He’s a potential Defensive Player of the Year. He’s a potential All-Star. A year ago, he was getting played off the floor by the Miami Hurricanes in the NCAA Tournament. He was taken with the 22nd pick of the draft and he was promptly traded to Utah.
He’s an elite defender, who was thinking of as maybe a good NBA backup center at this time last year. What the Jazz are proving is that they knocked their coaching search out of the park by hiring Hardy. They are proving to be one of the best and fastest teams in the league at developing players. And they are proving to have a far stronger core already on the roster than what anyone thought when training camp opened last September.
Sometimes, it’s not the food you buy. It’s how you cook the food when you buy it.
(Photo of Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker driving to the basket against the Celtics: Rob Gray / USA Today)