Analysis: The growth, development and adaptability of Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler
Markkanen and Kessler were incredible on Wednesday night in the Jazz’s victory over the Toronto Raptors.
On Thursday night the NBA will announce the All-Star team reserves.
The Utah Jazz already got some good news this week when Walker Kessler was announced as one of the 11 NBA rookies chosen to take part in the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star weekend and they have high expectations for more good news on Thursday night regarding Lauri Markkanen.
“First of all, none of us are hoping. We are all expecting Lauri to be an All-Star,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said after the Jazz’s win over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night.
“Whatever anybody thought of our players when trades were made, whatever anybody thought of our team before the season started, I would say a lot of those people were wrong. And Lauri being an All-Star would be a giant stamp on that.”
The growth of Markkanen and Kessler
As if right on cue, both Markkanen and Kessler were incredible on Wednesday night. Kessler punctuated his Rising Stars news with a 17-point, 13-rebound, 7-block performance and Markkanen had one more All-Star caliber performance ahead of the reserve announcement, finishing the night with 28 points, going 7-of-13 from the field, including 4-of-9 from 3-point range and hitting all 10 of his free throw attempts.
Both players have expanded their games and grown so much over the last few months and it’s apparent in the way that opposing players are reacting to them. Players attack the rim less when Kessler is on the floor, Markkanen is seeing double-teams more than he has at any other time in his NBA career and both have to be even more physical on both sides of the ball.
It’s not a secret anymore that Markkanen and Kessler are good players. The word is out. They’re at the top of scouting reports and for good reason.
What is sometimes overlooked is how quickly both of these players have had to adapt to these changes. True breakout seasons are more rare than you might think. Usually players get better gradually and over time. But in the case of Kessler and Markkanen, they are having to change the way they play nearly every game because of increased attention from the opposition.
The Raptors are a great example of this. They came into the game hoping to keep the ball out of Markkanen’s hands and force him into tough situations. They made him turn the ball over four times in the first half. But he didn’t back down from the challenge and once again found a way to use that defensive aggressiveness to his advantage.
“We’ve seen the games where he makes seven, eight 3s, and those are nice, but you can’t rely on that,” Hardy said. “He has so much more to give and I love looking at a stat sheet where I see him get 10 free throws and shoots nine 3s. You’re seeing a good variety there.”
With Kessler, teams are starting to realize that they can’t score at the rim as easily when he is the one protecting it. It certainly doesn’t stop them from trying early on in a game, almost as if they’re trying to catch him off guard — which is why Kessler had six blocks in the first quarter alone.
But just because teams are starting to veer away from Kessler, doesn’t mean that he can’t impact a shot or alter things with his defense, and we saw that against the Raptors. Seven blocks is certainly impressive, but there were also probably 15 other times that Kessler altered a shot and he’s continually getting better about his spacing and timing and being able to impact things on a close-out rather than only at the rim.
If anything, the other Jazz players need to start understanding the way that Kessler changes the game so that they can step in and make his life easier after good defensive plays.
“When teams shoot over Walker, sometimes they alter their shots so much just to make sure he doesn’t block it,” Hardy said. “The other guys have to do a better job of blocking out the roller and getting those rebounds because with Walker it’s hard to do both. You can’t go contest every shot and get all the rebounds.”
The Jazz have had a lot of things break their way when you look at the trades they made over the summer and the emergence of Markkanen and Kessler have been at the top of that list. But even more so, the willingness that they have to adapt and the speed at which they do it, has been one of the more impressive developments.
Now we wait for the All-Star reserve announcement.