Editor’s note: Ninth in a series evaluating and grading every player that was on the Jazz’s final 2022-23 roster.

Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy likes to say that progress is not a straight line.

The sentiment there is that there are always going to be setbacks or learning curves, especially when it comes to young players learning the ins and outs of the NBA and carving out a role for themselves. That can probably be applied to progress in any area of life, not just for NBA players. 

But Ochai Agbaji’s rookie season and the continuous improvement he showed was just about as linear as it could have been. By the end of the season, Agbaji was one of the Jazz’s most intriguing players, and it seems like he’s living up to the billing of being the No. 14 overall pick in last year’s draft.

Ochai Agbaji — Grade: A

Starting out his rookie year in the G League and being at the end of the Jazz’s rotation is not how Agbaji thought things would go.

To be frank, he didn’t think he’d be in Utah. When asked what his “welcome to the NBA” moment was, he always says “being traded.”

For NBA players, there are always going to be feelings wrapped up in being traded. Why didn’t that other team want me? Am I just an asset to be moved around? What is my value?

So Hardy made sure to let the players who came in from trades (especially Agbaji and fellow rookie Walker Kessler) know that the Jazz wanted them and they were a part of the future.

But for Agbaji then to start the season on the fringes of the rotation and then get assigned to the Salt Lake City Stars for multiple G League assignments, it had to be extremely difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Through all of that, Agbaji worked really hard and he constantly reminded himself that being in the NBA is a privilege, in whatever capacity it is.

Slowly, Agbaji started to get more minutes here and there when other players were injured, then he started to get used in short stints as a part of the bench rotation.

In January, he started to have a more regular role, and ultimately Agbaji closed out the season as a mainstay in the rotation, including starting 22 of the final 26 games.

Early on, Agbaji was a spot-up shooter from the corner and was used as a part of the offense meant to facilitate opportunities for his teammates.

He stayed on the court with precision, he made good passes, he played hard on defense and he didn’t go too far outside of his lane.

There’s danger in that though, because the Jazz saw a lot of potential in Agbaji. They wanted him to get comfortable, but to also push himself.

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During warmups early in the season, Jazz CEO Danny Ainge was working with Agbaji on the court, telling him to use his strength and athleticism to create his own shots.

Ainge was directing Agbaji to use screens and his ability to rise above defenders to get shots off in multiple different situations, not just as a spot-up guy.

Slowly, Agbaji started to come out of his shell on the court. He started taking chances on defense — chances that paid off.

On offense, he would cut to the rim, beat guys off the dribble, attack in space and eventually he started hunting for his own looks.

In the latter half of the season, it seemed like every two weeks or so Agbaji was taking different shots, was playing with even more confidence and was showing off new parts of his game.

After Agbaji became a regular part of the rotation on Jan. 5, he averaged 9.9 points per game while shooting 36.7% from 3-point range. He had four games in the final 12 games of the season in which he scored more than 20 points.

“I think we all saw him take on a different role,” Hardy said. “We want to try to build on that in this offseason so that hopefully he comes into next training camp with a different level of confidence.”

By the end of the 2022-23 campaign, Agbaji was not the same player he had been at the beginning of the season. He even got thrown out of a game.

Though usually mild-mannered, always smiling and a self-proclaimed mama’s boy, he was ejected from the final game of the season after yelling at an official after a no-call play.

“He decided to wait until the 82nd game to get a bad-boy image,” Hardy said with a laugh. “He’s the nicest kid on the team besides Walker, and then he gets thrown out in the last game of the year. Just add it to the list of wacky things that have happened to the team this season.”

There are certainly expectations for lottery picks, even if the player is the last pick of the lottery. Agbaji met those expectations even if it was a bit of a slow burn, and he left everyone believing that his ceiling might be higher than originally expected.

“I don’t think I have a ceiling,” Agbaji said. “As hard as I work, I feel like there’s always stuff that I’m trying to achieve, trying to go for, and I feel like the only person stopping that is me.”