"Always Had This Belief" | Markkanen And Kessler Named Finalists For NBA Awards

Ryan Kostecka
Digital Content Writer

Nobody knew what to expect when Lauri Markkanen entered the 2022-23 season. 

He had just dominated the EuroBasket competition for Finland, showing his ability to be a No. 1 scoring option on a successful team. But as he transitioned back to the NBA for the upcoming season, many assumed he would return to being what he was for the past five seasons — a solid role player. 

What a difference six months make.

Announced Friday evening, Markkanen has been chosen as one of three finalists for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award. He is joined by other nominees Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City) and Jalen Brunson (New York).

Simply put, Markkanen was among the brightest and best storylines in the NBA this season. 

The sixth-year forward had a breakout season, being named to his first All-Star game and eventually chosen as a starter. He's also a prime candidate to be selected All-NBA after a record-breaking season that saw him become the first player in NBA history to have 200 threes and 100 dunks in a season.

As Utah's No. 1 option, he averaged career-highs in points (25.6), shot attempts (17.3), field goal percentage (49.9%), free throw percentage (87.5%), assists (1.9), and minutes (34.4). 

He also averaged 8.6 rebounds per game, 39.2% from three, and 58.6% effective field goal percentage, all the second-most in his career.

"I think it's been my overall game coming together," Markkanen said. "Working on my overall game, working on where my spots are on the floor. … I've just been trying to bring everything together and just keep working on the overall package."

"Our team looks to Lauri," head coach Will Hardy added. "He's an NBA All-Star for a reason, and he's had a consistency about not only his play but his approach all season. I don't know what the ceiling is on Lauri. … I don't think any of us do, but I'm pretty sure we haven't seen it yet.”

However, Markkanen is not the only Jazzman potentially taking home some hardware this season. 

Walker Kessler, Utah's beloved and talented rookie — and Markkanen's campaign manager — was announced as one of three finalists for the NBA's Rookie of the Year award. He is joined by Paolo Banchero (Orlando) and Jaylen Williams (Oklahoma City).

To say it was a whirlwind season for the center would be an understatement, as Kessler burst onto the scene as one of the top rookies in the league. There's no questioning his impact on both ends of the court, as he emerged as one of the best rim protectors in the game and is considered a near lock for the All-Rookie team.

He finished the year averaging 11.5 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks in his 40 starts. He was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for February, debuted at All-Star weekend that same month, and then dropped a career-high 31 points in late March. 

He also became the first rookie in 25 years to record at least four games of 7+ blocks, trailing Tim Duncan's five times in 1998, and he became the first Jazz rookie ever to record a 30-point, 10-rebound game.

"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."

"Like all of the best defenders in the NBA, part of it is they have a reputation," Hardy added. "I think for sure the reputation that he has now is helpful. … He's really gotten the respect of the league, the officials, the players, in terms of being one of those premier shot blockers.”