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Evaluating the Jazz’s young bench players

A third of the way through the 2022-23 season, what have we learned about the younger and more inexperienced players in Utah

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Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) goes to the hoop ahead of Golden State Warriors forward JaMychal Green (1) during a game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

DENVER — On Saturday night not only did Talen Horton-Tucker and Nickeil Alexander-Walker play more than 30 minutes each but we also got a chance to see other players that rarely get time, like Lenadro Bolmaro and rookie Ochai Agbaji.

As the NBA season progresses, and we all get caught up in the wins and losses of each night and where each team is positioned in their respective conferences, it can be easy to lose sight of the development and continuous evaluation that’s happening behind the scenes. Seeing some real playing time for the deeper bench players was a good reminder of that.

Now that we’re about a third of the way through the 2022-23 season, it felt like a good time to look at the roster and see what we’ve learned about the younger and more inexperienced players that are new to the Jazz.

Walker Kessler

Portland Trail Blazers forward Trendon Watford (wearing white), Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (wearing black).

Portland Trail Blazers forward Trendon Watford (2), Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) and Portland forward Justise Winslow (26) fight for the rebound during an NBA game at the Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The No. 22 overall pick in the 2022 draft, Walker Kessler has turned out to be an incredible piece of the haul the Jazz received in the Rudy Gobert trade from Minnesota.

He is a fixture in the Jazz’s regular rotation and the speed at which he is adapting to the NBA has been very impressive.

Kessler has played in every game for the Jazz that he’s been available for (only missing three games early in the season when he was sick). Despite being a rookie, through the first 29 games, Kessler is sixth in the NBA in total blocks and fifth in blocks per game. 

On the positive side, Kessler learns from his mistakes quickly and is a true student of the game who rabidly watches film and wants to improve. He has great footwork and reads the game well for a rookie at the center position. His passing is better than expected, he runs the floor with incredible speed and his ability to maneuver around the rim is great.

Where he needs improvement is becoming a better, screener and overall pick-and-roll player and improving at the free-throw line. He still has to learn timing and angles when he screens and to use his screens in a way that really impact the game, rather than just going through the motion. He needs to figure out how to use his strengths when he is facing stronger, bigger opponents and then become more reliable when he goes to the line.

Overall, this has been an incredible rookie season from Kessler and he’s on the right track. If anything, he’s ahead of schedule and that’s good news for the Jazz.

Talen Horton-Tucker

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Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (0) shoots over Indiana Pacers guard Bennedict Mathurin (00) during a game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Now in his fourth season, the 22-year-old Horton-Tucker is learning the game in a completely different way than he was for the last three years. When you’re a young player on a team with LeBron James, you are just going to be playing a different style of basketball than you would anywhere else, there’s no way around that.

So, while there have been some growing pains with Horton-Tucker, he’s shown improvement and a willingness to adapt his game.

Horton-Tucker’s greatest strengths are his body and instincts on the defensive end and his ability to put pressure on the rim on offense with athleticism and strength.

His wingspan, his frame, and his natural strength make him an ideal NBA defender and he has really great feel on that side of the ball. The next step on that side of things is for him to become better at the point of attack. He sometimes has a tendency to give a little too much room when he’s defending the ball and that forces him to have to work really hard as he defends close to the interior.

On offense, he’s been a lot better at distributing and trying to work within the team rather than just putting his head down and barreling toward the basket every time he gets the ball. As he continues to evolve as a ballhandler and creator, he needs to find the balance between pressuring the rim to gain an advantage and pressuring the rim to create for himself.

Sometimes he attacks without a plan B and gets caught in the paint without a real passing lane or look at the basket, which is something that happens when players are playing a little too fast.

Nobody wants Horton-Tucker to stop being aggressive, because when he settles for shots from the perimeter, they’re only going in at a 23.8% rate. Rather, they want his aggressiveness to always benefit the team.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker

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Utah Jazz guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (6) snags a crucial rebound away from Golden State Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga (00) in the final moments of a game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

It’s unfortunate that Alexander-Walker’s career has been so inconsistent when it comes to playing time, the teams he’s been on, the coaches he’s played for, and his role on a team. With all of that inconsistency, it’s hard to really nail down what kind of player he is or he can become.

What is good though, is that Alexander-Walker is currently playing his best and most efficient NBA basketball. He’s shooting a career-best from everywhere on the floor and has been really impressive from 3-point range, hitting 41.3% overall from deep and better than 55% on open 3s.

His per-36 numbers are really great, especially when you consider that he is still playing an inconsistent role.

Defensively Alexander-Walker gives a lot to be happy about. He has good hands, he fights over screens and understands how and when to do so, he’s good at switching and he’s smart about when to gamble for a steal.

Offensively he seems to have really cleaned up his shot selection and stated above, he’s playing really efficiently. He’s pretty smart and is good at reading the game and knows how to move with and without the ball. Where he needs work is execution with the ball.

A lot of his turnovers are the result of bad passes that are either poorly timed or just off the mark. My instinct is to believe that with more consistent playing time and more reps, he would gain more confidence and have a better feel for the game and that would help to clear some of that up. But, that might not happen for him, so that’s going to be the biggest task for him — finding a way to improve without the reps.

Simone Fontecchio

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Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio (16) shoots in front of Phoenix Suns forward Josh Okogie (2) during an NBA game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. The Jazz won 134-133.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Shooters shoot, and that’s what Simone Fontecchio does best. He is a really pure shooter who is incredibly confident even when he doesn’t see as much playing time as some of the others on the roster. That’s an incredible trait and the Jazz should be very glad that the 27-year-old Italian rookie stays that ready.

Though he is a 41.5% 3-point shooter, if Fontecchio wants to carve out a place for himself on this roster or just in the NBA in general, he’s going to have to use his 6-8 frame to his advantage by doing the little things — defending without fouling, getting rebounds, becoming more defensively versatile.

I think that Fontecchio has a lot of clear skills that he’s learned over his decade of playing professionally overseas. He has really good timing and knows when to pass the ball, when to side-step dribble, when he needs a quick release and when his shot is the best option. But he also has a lot of room to grow and to show that he’s more than just a scorer.

Ochai Agbaji

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Utah Jazz guards Ochai Agbaji (30) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (6) after a basket against the Memphis Grizzlies in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Rookie Agbaji has had a really rough rookie season thus far. He’s played in just 11 games for the Jazz, mostly in garbage time. In the small spurts that he’s been on the court it’s been difficult for him to show off his strength and get into any sort of a rhythm.

In his play with the Stars, the Jazz’s G-League affiliate, he’s also struggled, fouling and turning the ball over a lot.

The hope, of course, is that Agbaji is not discouraged by any of this and that he continues to do the necessary work behind the scenes to get better. I know that the Jazz really like the idea of Agbaji as a player and that his raw talent and athleticism are incredibly appealing for the Jazz. So there is going to be investment in his development and that’s what he needs to focus on.

Leandro Bolmaro

LA Clippers forward Moussa Diabate (25) and Utah Jazz guard Leandro Bolmaro (10) battle for the ball as the lJazz and Clippers play at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. Utah won 125-112.

LA Clippers forward Moussa Diabate (25) and Utah Jazz guard Leandro Bolmaro (10) battle for the ball as the lJazz and Clippers play at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. Utah won 125-112.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Second-year guard Bolmaro has played even less than Agbaji, appearing in just five games for the Jazz. So there’s not a lot to go off of. But on Saturday he played 17 minutes, his most substantial outing for the Jazz. In those minutes there were things that stood out.

Bolmaro really knows how to play in pick-and-roll. He is a skilled ballhandler, is a good passer and he’s just knows what he’s doing in that situation.

It would be really, really great if he was also an outside threat, because that would open his game up a lot, but that doesn’t seem to be the case right now. Defensively, Bolmaro has the kind of body that would allow him to be pesky and to get around screens but he gets caught hard on them. Though, it’s kind of hard to have really developed a feel for that when you aren’t playing in very many competitive games.