Utah Jazz rookie Walker Kessler loves the restaurant chain Waffle House. He loves it so much that he’s joked — but maybe in a serious way — about buying a couple of his own franchises. Of course, it would take a pretty big financial investment to make that dream a reality, so Kessler is hoping that this basketball thing works out.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a point of pride. You know, I appreciate coach trusting me with the role, but I don’t really feel prideful in that. It’s coach’s decision, and at the end of the day that’s what he thinks is best.” — Walker Kessler on earning a starting role

Well, so far so good.

The Jazz rookie is averaging 7.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 20.2 minutes per game. His 96 blocks rank fifth in the NBA and first among rookies. His 10 double-doubles is tied for most among all rookies.

On Tuesday the NBA announced that Kessler was one of 11 NBA rookies selected to be a part of the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend. The annual showcase, featuring a mini-tournament with four teams (one team of G League players, three teams composed of rookies and second-year players) and three games, will air live at 7 p.m. MST on TNT on Feb. 17.

“I’m just thankful, super thankful to my teammates and coaching staff. I wouldn’t be able to do this without them,” Kessler said. “I’m very, very excited, very, very thankful, very blessed. I’m gonna keep rambling, so I better stop.”

The Jazz knew that they were getting a good player in Kessler when he was included in the deal that sent Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves over the summer. The hope was that Kessler could eventually become a legitimate starting center over time. But that hopeful timeline was accelerated when, very early in the season, it became clear that Kessler was going to be deserving of the starting job, sooner rather than later. 

On Jan. 16, Kessler started for the 10th time in his young NBA career, and to that point, all of his starts had been because of an injury to someone else in the regular starting lineup. That night Kessler became the first rookie in Jazz history to log a 20-20 performance with 20 points, 21 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. It was the first 20-20 performance by a rookie in the NBA since 2014.

A larger role

When Kelly Olynyk returned to the lineup from a sprained ankle, Jazz coach Will Hardy decided it was time to give Kessler a larger role. So the Jazz coaching staff moved Jarred Vanderbilt to the bench and kept Kessler in the starting unit.

Though he feels like he’s accomplished a lot in the few short months that he’s been in the NBA, Kessler is trying his best to maintain a level head. He doesn’t want to become a player who acts like they have everything figured out. He knows that there is still a lot to learn and a lot of growth that needs to happen.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a point of pride,” Kessler said of earning a starting role. “You know, I appreciate coach trusting me with the role, but I don’t really feel prideful in that. It’s coach’s decision, and at the end of the day that’s what he thinks is best. But I think any other guy could start too and do just as well.”

Though it’s refreshing for Kessler to say as much, the truth of the matter is that he’s earned that spot and deserves it. What’s next for the rookie is learning how to earn not only starting minutes but closing minutes.

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Against the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 20, the Jazz were trailing by three points with less than two minutes left to play. Kyrie Irving was having an incredible night and when he got a screen that switched Kessler onto him, he shot a fadeaway 3-pointer that gave him 45 points. Hardy called a timeout and gave Kessler quite the verbal lashing.

Irving would go on to finish the night with 48 points and the Nets won. On that play, Kessler felt like he was close enough to Irving, but with the great scorers of the league, you have to come off screen a little higher and put more pressure on them. Kessler needed to use his length to his advantage and he didn’t. Hardy subbed him out of the game.

Kessler beat himself up about the play. He was frustrated in the locker room after the game. But after seeing some film the next day, he realized that it’s those small moments that will end up making the biggest differences down the road if he’s able to absorb his failures and learn from them.

Attention to detail

“At this level, detail is everything — like one step higher, maybe one more jab,” Kessler said. “So, there’s a lot of times going back on the film (where I think) I should have done this, could have done this, but you’ve just got to — it’s over with. But you take it, learn from it and apply it to your next game or next matchup.”

It’s the right mentality and right approach, but Hardy does not believe in giving out what he calls “free minutes.” When players make the same mistake multiple times in a single game, when they aren’t playing with the right type of force, when there is a matchup that they are not ready to handle, he will sit them on the bench and let them watch the game to try to learn rather than allowing them to continue to make the same mistakes over.

So, five days after the loss to the Nets, Kessler was benched for the entirety of the fourth quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers as Damian Lillard finished the night with 60 points.

“We did not want to play drop (coverage) against Dame anymore,” Hardy said. “We made the decision to go with more of a switching group on that end. ... Walker was a little bit out of sorts defensively in that game. Just got caught in between a bunch and we felt that the best thing for us to do is to switch and try to double team.”

Growing pains

There’s a difficult balance that the Jazz coaching staff is trying to manage when it comes to a player like Kessler. They know the best way to learn is by being in an NBA game, something that is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in a practice setting. And they know that the pains and mistakes are all a part of the learning process. So they need to make sure that they are rewarding Kessler for the good that he is doing, give him enough space to be able to learn from his mistakes, but also rein him in when he’s not doing the right thing and the game is on the line.

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“Late in the game that margin for error against top players gets even smaller because you don’t have time to make it up. So a lot of this is a learning experience for Walker,” Hardy said. “We understand that there’s going to be imperfections, we understand that there’s going to be moments that don’t necessarily go perfectly because they haven’t lived through those moments yet.

“Now, that being said, we’re still going to coach them hard because they have to know and feel that we believe, one, that we can win every single game, and two, that it is really important and that they have a job to do and it’s their job to execute. It doesn’t mean that we don’t love them.”

Now that Kessler has a starting spot with the Jazz, he’s going to have the opportunity to go against more and more of the top players in the league. He’s going to have more of an opportunity to learn about defensive spacing and when things need to change up, he’ll learn more about when it’s smart to attack mismatches and how to free his teammates with better screens. His timing will continue to improve and his instincts will get better and eventually the coaching staff will come to trust him in the closing moments of a game.

The Jazz aren’t concerned about the trajectory of Kessler. He’s had an incredible start to his career and they know that he has what it takes to become a great player and have a very long and successful NBA life. It’s just going to take some time to get to that point.

Kessler recently took on the unofficial role as campaign manager, trying to promote Lauri Markkanen for an All-Star bid. He joked that he isn’t getting paid for his hours spent campaigning, but maybe he could bring in Markkanen, who makes significantly more money than Kessler, to be an investing partner in a Waffle House franchise.

Though, the way things are looking right now, Kessler is going to be up for a pretty big payday once his rookie contract comes to an end. And then, if he wants to, owning a Waffle House will be absolutely no problem.

Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier (3) fumbles the ball behind Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) during an NBA game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.
Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier, right, fumbles the ball behind Jazz center Walker Kessler during game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News