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Rising star Walker Kessler hoping to borrow page from Lauri Markkanen’s book

Jazz rookie has admired the former Arizona Wildcat’s game for a long time. Now they’re teammates who will be participating in this week’s All-Star Weekend

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Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler battles for position with New Orleans forward Naji Marshall in Salt Lake City, Dec. 13, 2022.

Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler battles for position with New Orleans forward Naji Marshall in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. Kessler and teammate Lauri Markkanen will be reppin’ the Jazz during All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Once upon a time there was a young, but extremely tall kid in Atlanta who idolized basketball stars and dreamt of someday being one himself.

He was an absolute hoops junkie, and would scout his own youthful competition but also dove deep into watching collegiate hoops and, of course, the NBA. One of his favorite college players was a 7-foot European sniper on the Arizona Wildcats.

As time went on, that young boy from the South followed his favorite Wildcat’s career into the NBA and tried to replicate some of the things his idol would do. But, seemingly in the blink of an eye, that kid grew up to become an NBA player himself, and in his rookie season, he ended up on a team with that player he’d always admired.

This story doesn’t seem very likely, does it? What’s a kid from Atlanta doing idolizing some international player in Arizona? Who would believe that they would end up on an NBA team together? It’s too improbable.

Well, that kid was Utah Jazz rookie Walker Kessler, and the player he was hoping to model his game after was none other than former Wildcat and Finnish phenom Lauri Markkanen

Kessler got a little starstruck when he met Markkanen for the first time before the season started.

“He probably doesn’t remember it, I was just some rookie in training camp like, ‘Hey, man, like I looked up to you.’ He was probably like, ‘Yeah, all right,’” Kessler said, waving his hand in a dismissive manner. “It’s funny how everything works out.”

It’s even funnier because of what’s happened since the two became NBA teammates.

Kessler is gearing up for the Rising Stars tournament during All-Star Weekend, having been chosen as one of the 11 best rookies in the league. But it’s Markkanen who is headlining the All-Star festivities for the Jazz after earning an All-Star spot and being named as a starter replacement by NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

And, the person that was at the front of the Lauri Markkanen for All-Star campaign, was Walker Kessler.

In an airplane hangar at the Salt Lake City airport prior to the Jazz leaving on a road trip earlier this season, Kessler handed out hoodies to his Jazz teammates and the team’s traveling party. The hoodies featured Markkanen’s All-Star promotional poster on the front and the words “The Finnisher” along the sleeve. 

“I’m his campaign manager,” Kessler said to teammates in a video shared on social media by the Jazz. “Do we have your vote?”

Kessler beams in the video when Markkanen shows up and the two share an exchange that perfectly encapsulates both players’ sense of humor.

As Kessler exclaims that his client, an All-Star candidate, is in the building, Markkanen laughs before taking a few steps away.

“I’m not paying you,” Markkanen says dryly.

“It’s OK,” Kessler replies. “I’ll work for free.”

Over the last few months, Markkanen and Kessler have bonded in a way that goes beyond a fan meeting one of his favorite players or a rookie trying to appease his NBA vet. The two sit next to each other on the team plane. Kessler tries to pick Markkanen’s brain as much as possible about the Xs and Os of the game, but the two also play games and talk about life.

“Obviously, he’s extremely talented, extremely skilled, but not everyone sees the offcourt stuff,” Kessler said. “He’s one of the most humble guys I’ve ever, ever met. And for the position he’s in, he has every right to not be humble. But he’s an unbelievable, unbelievable teammate and has helped me with a lot of stuff. I think everyone sees how good he is on the court, I just want to comment on the kind of character he has.”

It’s fair to say Kessler is a pretty great campaign manager. But in the midst of trying to prop up his teammate, Kessler was becoming one of the best rookie players in the NBA.

He earned a starting job in the Jazz rotation and then was chosen as one of 11 NBA rookies to take part in the Rising Stars tournament during All-Star Weekend.

When the Jazz were rebuilding in the offseason, they loved the idea of getting Markkanen back in the Donovan Mitchell trade and they saw a ton of upside in Kessler, acquired in the deal with Minnesota that saw the departure of Rudy Gobert. But even Jazz brass have been shocked by the improvement from Markkanen and the early returns from Kessler.

Both players have not only endeared themselves to the Jazz fanbase, but they’ve caught the attention of the NBA world and they’re a big part of what the Jazz want to do moving forward.

Kessler said that it’s funny how everything works out. But maybe it’s something that Markkanen said that better sums up the year that Kessler and Markkanen are having.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.


Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) and Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler battle for the ball as the Utah Jazz play in a scrimmage game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News