Last year, Ochai Agbaji stormed onto the scene for Utah Jazz fans that were looking for silver linings in the first part of the team’s rebuilding process.

The 14th pick in the 2022 NBA draft was quickly traded to the Jazz as part of the deal that sent Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Though a lottery pick, Agbaji started off the season slowly, spending some time in the G League before incrementally making his way into Will Hardy’s rotation.

“Trying to stay ready and having in my mind that I need to get a make, and trying to make the right moves and knowing I don’t have the luxury of a lot of shots is hard. But you still have to stay ready and keep your mind right and just be ready to shoot.” — Jazz guard Ochai Agbaji

But as the season progressed, so too did Agbaji’s role and his many talents. By the end of the year, due in part to injuries to other players, Agbaji was firmly in the starting lineup and stayed there for the final 20 games of the 2022-23 season. He closed out his rookie campaign shooting 35.5% from 3 and proved to be an athletic defender with huge upside.

Many were expecting Agbaji to make a big jump in his second year, but as the Jazz have shifted rotations and experimented with different guard lineups, Agbaji has struggled at times to stand out in a crowd.

So much attention is rightly paid to Lauri Markkanen, who is undoubtedly the best player on the Jazz’s roster, and other more flashy players on the roster, that it’s hard to make headlines as a role player.

Then, with rookie Keyonte George joining the ranks and the confusion early on in the season about the guard line — Kris Dunn, Collin Sexton, Talen Horton-Tucker and Jordan Clarkson — Agbaji was left trying to figure out how he fit into the Jazz’s ever-changing environment.

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Although he started out the year shooting better than he did last season, his numbers have dipped significantly as of late. After shooting 37% from deep through December, Agbaji hit just 18.8% of his 3-point attempts in January.

“He obviously works on it a lot,” Hardy said. “We believe in Ochai’s shooting, I believe in Ochai shooting. The ball hasn’t found him a ton lately on the offensive end, and so he’s getting limited attempts, which is a hard life to live.”

For volume shooters, a slump usually comes and goes within a few games. If you put up enough attempts, things even out sooner rather than later. But that’s not Agbaji, who only takes two or three 3s a game. And not being a huge focal point of the offense has made the shooting slump a little harder to break out of. 

“It is kind of tough,” Agbaji told the Deseret News. “Trying to stay ready and having in my mind that I need to get a make, and trying to make the right moves and knowing I don’t have the luxury of a lot of shots is hard. But you still have to stay ready and keep your mind right and just be ready to shoot.”

There doesn’t seem to be any concern from any of the coaches or players about the ball not falling for Agbaji. Everyone trusts that he’ll break out of the slump eventually. And a large part of that trust is built on the other side of the ball.

Though he hasn’t been shooting well, Agbaji has maintained his place in the rotation by being reliable on the defensive end. He takes on tough assignments, plays well on the ball, moves with intention when he’s in rebounding position, and about once every other night, he has a highlight block that wows everyone in the crowd.

“He’s got unbelievable athleticism, unbelievable timing and discipline,” teammate Walker Kessler said of Agbaji. “He just knows when to jump and he really gets ’em. He’s extremely athletic.”

That athleticism was something that jumped out as soon as Agbaji joined the Jazz. In the early days of last season, Danny Ainge spent quite a bit of time talking to Agbaji about how he could use his athleticism as a weapon and use it against the opponent on both sides of the floor.

It’s his athletic ability and how he is implementing it on defense that propelled Agbaji through the days when he struggled on the offensive end and it’s impressed the coaching staff. Especially in the moments when he makes an impactful play with a momentum-shifting chase-down block.

“Ochai is one of the best athletes I’ve been around,” Hardy said. “He’s physically very strong, so when he gets bumped, he doesn’t just sort of wilt in those moments. He is able to take a bump and then he’s athletic jumping off either foot. He doesn’t really have to time his steps. There’s times he jumps off two, but we’ve also seen in block shots jumping off of each foot individually.”

Jazz forward Ochai Agbaji talks to CEO Danny Ainge during a Utah Jazz practice at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus.
Jazz forward Ochai Agbaji talks to CEO Danny Ainge during a Utah Jazz practice at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Often when players are attempting to block a shot when they’re running, they end up chopping their steps, almost stuttering as they approach the rim so that they can jump off their dominant foot. But, Agbaji doesn’t seem to have that problem at all.

In fact, the emergence of Agbaji as a help defender at the rim and a chase-down block threat, is kind of a new development and every bit of it comes naturally to him.

“It’s not really something I did at all in high school or college,” Agbaji said with a laugh and a shrug. “I know what this is going to sound like, but it’s kind of easy.”

He surprises himself sometimes with some of his defensive moves, but he instinctively understands where his hands should be depending on a dunk or layup attempt. So, blocking shots is not something that Agbaji even practices. It all just happens organically.

“I give Ochai a lot of credit,” Hardy said. “I know he’s struggled shooting the ball lately and he’s still finding ways to make impactful plays in the game. That’s hard to do. It’s hard to push through the worrying about your shooting. … But he’s finding ways to make impactful plays defensively for us every night and that’s a credit to him.”

There’s a stat that I like to look at when it comes to the defensive side of things which is defensive percentage differential, often referred to as DIFF%. It measures the difference between the normal percentage of a shooter and the percentage on shots when a certain player is guarding a shooter.

A good DIFF% number is negative, indicating that a player holds opponents to lower shooting percentages than what they normally average.

There are four players in the Jazz’s regular rotation with negative (good) DIFF% — Kessler (-4.3), Dunn (-9.8), Simone Fontecchio (-1.2) and Agbaji (-3.1).

We’re just a bit past the halfway point of the 2023-24 season and so many have been wondering about Agbaji’s role on the team, what seems to be wrong on offense and what his future looks like.

The answer is that the Jazz are still learning what everyone’s role is, and while Agbaji is not a focal point, the staff has learned to trust that he can wade through some uncertain times while still being impactful. Nothing is necessarily wrong on offense; he’s just going through a very normal slump. And what does his future look like? So long as he continues to prove that he is a reliable defender, the future is bright.

Utah Jazz guard Ochai Agbaji defends New Orleans Pelicans forward Naji Marshall during a game at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News