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How the Jazz defense has responded since Walker Kessler got injured

The team has been playing without a traditional center in his absence from the lineup

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Utah Jazz guard Collin Sexton (2) and Simone Fontecchio (16) try to stop Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler was ruled out for at least two weeks with an elbow sprain on Nov. 8. Since then, the team has been playing without a traditional center and has moved to using rookie Keyonte George and Ochai Agbaji in the starting lineup.

Prior to Kessler’s injury the Jazz’s defensive rating was ranked 28th. In the games following Kessler’s injury, the Jazz have had the 16th-best defensive rating. That’s a pretty big jump, but it kind of goes against conventional wisdom considering that Kessler is a defense-first player and the defensive anchor of the team.

So, what’s going on?

Well, to be perfectly honest, all of the Jazz players not named Kessler needed a bit of a wakeup call.

“They’ve all taken more accountability,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “That’s really what it takes. Defense is not built around one person. Walker’s a huge part of our defense when he plays, but I don’t want the other four players to rely on Walker. I don’t want them to have something in the back of their head like ‘Oh, it’s OK because Walker will take care of it.’ I think that in some ways, having Walker out has probably heightened their awareness.”

The Jazz players certainly don’t want Kessler to be injured and they like their defense a lot more when he’s on the court. But they needed to realize that in order to be successful, they have to take on more defensive responsibility instead of expecting that Kessler will clean up their mistakes at the rim.

“That’s definitely a thing, I do it all the time,” Kelly Olynyk said with a bit of an embarrassed laugh. “I let my guy go by and let Walk block shots. It’s great when he’s out there, I love playing with Walker. ... But now you’ve got to make sure you’re in good position, helping each other early. And I think it’s been good for us to build that. Once we put Walker back in, hopefully we can just add that on top.”

So, the numbers might be a little bit deceiving. It’s not that the Jazz’s defense is better without Kessler, but that the other players on the court needed to play better defense all around.

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Through the first 11 games of the season, Lauri Markkanen is shooting at a 42.6% clip from 3-point land and has made 43 3s. That would put him on pace to make 320 3-pointers this season, which would be a career-high by a wide margin. Last season Markkanen hit 200 3-pointers, marking a career-best for a single season.

Extra points

  • When it comes to minimizing turnovers, Jazz aim to keep it simple (Deseret News)
  • Jordan Clarkson is on a hot streak and Keyonte George is part of the reason (Deseret News)
  • The Jazz are heavily invested in Taylor Hendricks, but it will be a process (Deseret News)
  • The Jazz track shots at practice. Here’s how their using the data (KSL.com)

Around the league

Up next: 2023-24 regular season

  • Nov. 19 | 6 p.m. | Utah Jazz vs. Phoenix Suns | NBA TV
  • Nov. 21 | 8 p.m. | Utah Jazz @ Los Angeles Lakers | TNT
  • Nov. 22 | 8 p.m. | Utah Jazz @ Portland Trail Blazers | KJZZ

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