"He's Gotten The Respect Of The League" | Kessler's Reputation Continues To Grow As He Makes His All-Rookie Case

Ryan Kostecka
Digital Content Writer

It's rare for a player to turn the table and ask questions during a postgame media session — yet when Walker Kessler takes his seat behind the microphone, anything is possible. 

"Did I goaltend that Devin Booker one or no? I was curious because I can't believe I got to that one," he said, referring to a block in the third quarter of Monday's showdown against the Suns. 

The room went silent as reporters scanned the replays looking for the block in question. It was so quiet that one of Utah's PR members asked the media if there were any more questions as Kessler sat idle. After a minute of searching in silence, a laptop was placed in front of Kessler, and he got his answer. 

"Oh, I got that? Geez. … That's crazy," he said with a smile.

That entire scenario was just another unexpected and delightful moment in Kessler's sensational first season. 

For someone whose main goal in life (or one of them) is to open up a Waffle House, the rookie has burst onto the scene this year.

He dropped a double-double against two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and Denver in the season opener. He became the first rookie to drop a 20-point, 20-rebound double in the last decade just a month later. 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.

Yet when asked about all of those accolades and how he's taken a giant leap this season, Kessler is quick to point out that his teammates and coaches deserve the most credit for teaching him.

"I always had this belief in me, but I just wanted to learn," he 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."

While it's been well-documented how good he's been this season, both as a rookie and a rim protector, Monday's 18-point, eight-rebound, seven-block performance was different. It was the first time this season that Kessler appeared to get the benefit of the doubt when it came to an official's whistle. It was extremely apparent how much he affected the game by his reputation more than his play — at least early on. 

"His technique is improved," head coach Will Hardy said. "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."

Phoenix took just 20 of their 101 shots at the rim on Monday, even when they had a numbers advantage. The Suns wanted nothing to do with him when he was lurking in the paint. It allowed the Jazz to run Phoenix off the three-point line knowing they still weren't going to take the ball inside and challenge Kessler at the rim.

When asked if he's noticed a change in his reputation, Kessler admits that he's being officiated differently — in a good way.

"Obviously, it's a learning curve for me, but I feel like the refs kind of know that's what I do. … They're definitely letting me go get some," Kessler said.

But it's not just the officials who are noticing. He talked on Monday night about how opposing players are now giving him more credit, constantly remarking about his size, length, or athleticism. Those blocks, the ones where players think they have a free lane, are the ones Kessler gets the most excited about. 

"A lot of times, they think they got an open layup or something, and I can get to it. … They're definitely a little caught off guard by it, for sure," he added. 

With an ever-growing list of accolades and a reputation that continues to build, Kessler has made his case to be chosen to the NBA All-Rookie team. It's a case that now, according to Hardy, includes another great distinction. 

"Like all of the best defenders in the NBA, part of it is they have a reputation," Hardy said of Kessler. "It's not that they don't ever foul, but they're known as a great defender. … So those moments where it's a coin toss, they get the benefit of the doubt more often."