"Always Gonna Play Hard" | Utah Returns Home To Face Phoenix In a Key Battle For Postseason Positioning

Ryan Kostecka
Digital Content Writer

With just eight games left in the regular season, what else is there to say about Walker Kessler?

It's been a sensational season for the rookie big man, accomplishing things on the court that haven't been done in 30 years. He's been named a Rookie of the Month and has helped lead in their push to the postseason. 

Yet he topped it all with a career night on Saturday against Sacramento. 

With Utah down its three leading scorers, Kessler nearly led the Jazz to the upset victory when he dropped a career-high 31 points on 14-of-16 shooting from the floor. He also added 11 rebounds, two assists, and one block, finishing with his 19th double-double of the season. 

"I'm always gonna play hard," Kessler said. "So tonight just happened to happen to go well. … My teammates found me in the right spots, so I appreciate that a lot."

"He was huge," Kelly Olynyk added. "A great, great game by him, great effort. "When he runs the floor like that and puts pressure on the rim, that vertical spacing where you can just throw it up where other guys can't get it, that's a huge advantage for us."

What made Kessler's night even more impressive was how he went about his scoring. Usually a rim-running lob threat, Kessler showed off an array of offensive moves where he put the ball on the court to create for himself. He showed the ability to catch the ball in traffic and finish strong, as well as impressive footwork.

"He contributes to winning," Hardy said. "You don't see a ton of rookies coming in and contribute to winning. … You don't see a ton of rookies come in and immediately make an impact. He's done that."

While this season may seem like a dream to Kessler, it's not as if he knew he couldn't accomplish such goals. He dropped a double-double coming off the bench in a season-opening victory over Denver, and then became the first rookie to drop a 20-point, 20-rebound double in the last decade just a month later. 

"I always had this belief in me, but I just wanted to learn," Kessler said. "I went into this year trying to learn as much as I could so when I do get the opportunity, I can take advantage and try to help us win the game. I figured by doing that, the rest would take care of itself."

But while there have been highs, there have also been some lows. After the season-opener, Kessler failed to reach double digits again for a near month, including two games he was shut out. 

"After that double-double, I was like, 'that was hard, but it wasn't impossible,'" he said. "But then I got humbled the next day, so you know, it goes hand in hand. … I learned that in the NBA, you can't let one bad game compound to the next game."

Kessler will look to help Utah's push to the postseason when the Jazz host the Phoenix on Monday night. The good news is that help could be on the way as Lauri Markkanen, out the past two games, has been upgraded to QUESTIONABLE for the showdown. 

Utah (35-39, 22-15 home / No. 12 Western Conference)
*117.3 Points Per Game (No. 6 in NBA)
*115.8 Offensive Rating (No. 6 in NBA)
*117.8 Points Per Game (No. 24 in NBA)
*116.2 Defensive Rating (No. 24 in NBA)
*Lauri Markkanen: 25.7 points | 8.6 rebounds | 1.9 assists | 40.0% 3P-shooting
*Kelly Olynyk: 12.3 points | 5.9 rebounds | 3.5 assists | 39.0% 3P-shooting
*Walker Kessler (Last 10 Games): 13.6 points | 10.1 rebounds | 2.9 blocks
*Ochai Agbaji (Last 10 Games): 13.4 points | 2.5 rebounds | 36.9% 3P-shooting

Phoenix (39-35, 15-23 away / No. 4 Western Conference)

*113.7 Points Per Game (No. 18 in NBA)
*114.4 Offensive Rating (No. 13 in NBA)
*112.0 Points Per Game (No. 6 in NBA)
*112.6 Defensive Rating (No. 8 in NBA)
*Devin Booker: 28.2 points | 5.4 assists | 4.6 rebounds | 36.8% 3P-shooting
*Deandre Ayton: 18.3 points | 10.1 rebounds | 58.9% shooting
*Chris Paul: 13.6 points | 9.1 assists | 1.6 steals | 36.4% 3P-shooting

*Walker Kessler vs. Deandre Ayton
— Coming off the best game of his career when he showed a different an array of offensive skills to drop a career-high 31 points, Kessler should have his hands full when he goes up against Ayton on Monday night. The two big men have the ability to influence the game on either end of the court, which should make for a thrilling showdown.  

QUESTIONABLE | Lauri Markkanen (left hand contusion)
OUT | Jordan Clarkson (left hand - fourth finger sprain)
OUT | Rudy Gay (low back soreness)
OUT | Collin Sexton (left hamstring strain)

PROBABLE | Deandre Ayton (right hip contusion)
OUT | Kevin Durant (left ankle sprain)

 7:00 p.m. MT
Location: Vivint Arena |Salt Lake City, UT
TV: AT&T SportsNet
Radio: The Zone Sports Network