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"I Mean, I See It" | Kessler Wins Battle With Banchero, Makes All-Rookie Case

Ryan Kostecka
Digital Content Writer

With so many storylines overtaking Utah's showdown with Orlando on Thursday night, one of the most important ones was the battle between the two most recent Rookie of the Month winners: Utah's Walker Kessler and Orlando's Paolo Banchero.

"Walker has been a huge key for us this season on both ends of the court," Jazz head coach Will Hardy said of his rookie big man. "He's such a big part of our defense, his athleticism has been huge for us. He's as naturally gifted a shot blocker and rim protector that I've been around. … He's unreal."

While Banchero appears poised to run away with the Rookie of the Year award — and for a good reason, he's deserving — Kessler has made a late push to at least make things interesting. They both won Rookie of the Month honors in February and appear locks for All-Rookie nominations, adding a little more flair to the game in mid-March.

"He's a hell of a young player," Hardy said of Banchero. "I don't think it's just his skillset, his body, his physicality, the tenacity that he plays with is what stands out. He's a physical force and shows the ability to put a lot of pressure on the rim. … He was the focal point of our discussions."

Although neither admitted that the game felt like a one-on-one battle, it took 30 seconds before they faced off against one another. The league's best rookie on defense found himself alone on the perimeter, matched up with the most talented scorer of the rookie class — with the only question remaining, who would win the battle?

Turns out the defense beat the offense on this possession.

After a screen in which he switched and found himself matched up with Banchero on the perimeter, Kessler, using his length and athleticism, pinned Banchero's first shot off the backboard, grabbed the rebound, and helped ignite the fast break bucket on the other end.

"It was nothing special to be honest," Kessler said of the block. "My teammates expect to make those sort of plays, so that's what I have to do to try and help us win. … At the end of the day, it's only about what I can do for the team and nothing else."

While nobody puts much stake into a singular play that happens less than one minute in the game, ask any member of Jazz Nation and that play felt significant for good reason. Kessler showed confidence to not just switch out on Banchero, but he more than held his own against a player who's been torching defenses all season long.

In the end, both players showed why they're so highly touted. Kessler dropped a double-double of 13 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, and three blocks, while Banchero caught fire in the fourth to finish with 26 points and eight rebounds.

"He's a great player, super skilled, obviously extremely athletic and physical," Kessler said of Banchero. "But it definitely feels good to get some recognition on my end. … I'm just going to keep doing what I do."

What made their showdown so enticing wasn't just that both of them had proven to be among the top rookies in the class, their respective journeys couldn't have been more different to this point.

Leading up to the NBA draft in June 2022, much talk was about Banchero — and for a good reason. A legit three-level scorer with all of the physical tools to succeed immediately in the NBA, Banchero was chosen No. 1 overall by the Magic and has thrived since he stepped onto an NBA court as a rookie.

But while Banchero was shaking hands with many people, doing multiple radio and TV interviews over the next couple of hours, Kessler sat silently at his table in the Barclays Center. The 7-footer from Auburn was an expected first round pick, but after 21 names had come and gone, he still sat in his chair, waiting.

Then finally, with the No. 21 overall pick, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that the Minnesota Timberwolves had chosen Kessler.

Banchero has lived up to the lofty expectations, averaging 20.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game in helping the Magic emerge as dark horses to make the play-in tournament in the Eastern Conference.

On the other end, Kessler started the season on the bench, but has made his way into the starting lineup and is now seen as a massive piece of Utah's rebuild. He's started 29 of his 63 games on the year, averaging 10.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks.

He leads all rookies in double-doubles with 16 and became the first rookie to post a 20-20 double-double since 2014 — and he was the first rookie since Alonzo Mourning (1992-93) to put up those numbers on 65% shooting or better in a game.

"I mean, I see it," Kessler said when asked if he pays attention to the rookie of the year race. "But for me, it's always just about trying to impact the game as much as I can and try to win the game at the end. … The rest of it takes care of itself."