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Analysis: The Utah Jazz have a lot to be happy about after collective effort paid off against the Nuggets

There were highlight plays from the vets, the rookies, the newcomers and everyone in between.

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Utah Jazz forward Jarred Vanderbilt (8) goes high for a rebound as the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets play at Vivint Arena on opening night in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Utah Jazz, surprisingly, unexpectedly, and in pretty convincing fashion, beat the Denver Nuggets, 123-102, on Wednesday night in the season opener at Vivint Arena.

There’s a lot to get to, so let’s jump right in.

So much good basketball

The Jazz had seven players score in double figures. Before the bench cleared in the final minute of the game, every player on the Jazz had recorded at least one assist. The ball was moving, the screens were deliberate and well-timed, and the scoring was electric. The Jazz shot 50.6% overall and 42.1% from 3-point range.

There were highlight plays from the vets, the rookies, the newcomers and everyone in between. The Jazz led by as many as 24 points and gave a lot of effort on the defensive end. Even when their lead dwindled and was in danger, the Jazz kept a really talented Denver team in check and held on with authority.

“It’s a really good team win,” head coach Will Hardy said. “On the defensive end, our physicality and tenacity, kind of sparked by Jarred Vanderbilt early in the game, was really infectious throughout our group. Denver is a really good team. They threw a big punch in the second half to get back in the game… Our guys just stuck together.”

Jarred Vanderbilt

Clearly the Jazz’s new hybrid-center was holding back in the preseason, which we should have known because we saw what he could do when he was in Minnesota. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone warned about Vanderbilt’s prowess before the game even started.

“Vando crushed us last year,” Malone said. “We lost three times to Minnesota and his relentless energy was very impactful for the T-Wolves. I’m sure he’s gonna do the same thing for Utah now that he’s here.”

Vanderbilt racked up 12 rebounds in 11 minutes, 36 seconds in the first half against Denver on Wednesday. He was squeezing through players, swiping in lanes, and giving the Jazz second-chances left and right.

“You can just tell how hard he plays, like when he’s out there you can feel his energy and also how bad he wants it,” Collin Sexton said of Vanderbilt. “That’s what’s going to help drive us each and every day.”

Now, Vanderbilt did foul out of the game midway through the fourth quarter and his foul trouble kept him off the court more than Hardy probably would have liked. But that kind of energy was infectious and led to some great play from rookie Walker Kessler.

Walker Kessler

A double-double in his NBA debut going against the two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic is not a bad way to start a career. Kessler talks a lot about learning from the veterans on the team and it’s not just the big guys.

Sure, Kessler is getting a ton of wisdom handed down from Lauri Markkanen and Kelly Olynyk, but he’s also gaining a lot of useful knowledge and experience from and with Mike Conley.

“Playing with Mike in the pick-and-roll is like the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Kessler said shaking his head. “I mean, he’s so — the way he’s patient with it and he holds off his man. It’s helped me so much. And he shows me how to hold a certain angle of the screen, how to help him, how to get other guys open. I mean, everyone on my team has been unbelievably supportive.”

Kessler did a lot of great stuff on Wednesday. He has great feel around the rim and he uses every bit of his length and strength and he even showed off some crafty footwork, including this reverse layup, which is a move that felt more like Conley than a rookie center, but was excellent nonetheless.

Collin Sexton

Hardy calls Collin Sexton a ‘maniac’ and repeatedly has mentioned how tough he has played during practices. Sexton put all of that on display against the Nuggets, scoring 12 of his team-high 20 points in the second half and saving his best for last.

Sexton scored six points in the final four minutes of the game and importantly drew a charge on Jokic at a pivotal moment. He’s going to be a player that the Jazz are going to love watching when he gets hot and starts to see red.

“You guys can see that fire that he has, especially at the end of the game. He made some big plays,” Hardy said. “His work ethic is one of the best that I’ve come across in my time in the NBA. Really happy for Collin in his first game here in front of the home crowd and that he was able to make some big plays down the stretch.”