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‘These guys play with urgency’: Jazz’s young players are standing out in training camp

Ochai Agbaji, Simone Fontecchio, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Walker Kessler have all impressed through the first three days

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Jazz forward Ochai Agbaji talks to CEO Danny Ainge during a Utah Jazz practice at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus.

Utah Jazz forward Ochai Agbaji talks to Jazz CEO Danny Ainge during a practice at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. The Jazz newcomer has made a good first impression this week.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

It’ll come as no surprise that some of the Utah Jazz veterans — Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Malik Beasley — have been vocal leaders through the first week of training camp. But some of the youngest and least experienced players on the roster have had standout moments in these early days.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker along with rookies Ochai Agbaji, Simone Fontecchio and Walker Kessler have all been mentioned as making a strong impression and for different reasons.

Kelly Olynyk was coming off a whirlwind of a weekend after being traded just before camp started but mentioned how surprised he was at Agbaji’s athleticism and strength after the Jazz’s first official practice together. 

By Thursday, Agbaji was already itching for the first preseason game, which is Sunday against the Raptors in Edmonton, Alberta.

“I’ve been looking forward to that since I’ve gotten here,” he said. “Just getting a chance to go out there and play.”

A day later, it was Alexander-Walker getting shoutouts from both Conley and head coach Will Hardy, not only for his offensive abilities but for the confidence that he’s exhibited during open gym sessions in the summer as well as the first couple days of training camp.

“Nickeil is a very, very skilled, diverse offensive player,” Hardy said. “He has good size, is a very good passer, he can put the ball in the basket. When he’s open and he shoots, I think it’s going in. He’s just really shown a confidence throughout open gym and training camp that I think has been really, really great for our group. His presence when he has the ball, sort of settles everybody down and he has been awesome.”

Kessler, who didn’t get to play in Summer League, and whose game was a bit unknown to some of the veterans on the team, has shown a maturity that many weren’t expecting. That spark from the young players has invigorated some of the more veteran guys on the team.

“Walker Kessler brings a dynamic and defensively he’s leaps and bounds ahead of where a lot of young guys are at,” Conley said of the rookie. “I think he’s capable of altering shots and blocking shots down low and all these guys play with urgency. They’re fighting for jobs or fighting for opportunity and that component is just fun to be around.”

On Thursday, the third day of training camp, quite a few players started to recognize that there was more chemistry building and that people were settling into their own games, becoming more comfortable with each other and their surroundings.

With that comfort and the beginnings of familiarity, Fontecchio found his shooting stroke.

“Simone’s pretty good. He lit it up today,” Beasley said. “He had a lot of great 3s, he knows how to move without the ball. Today was like his first day getting into rhythm. I think it was tough for him learning all these new schemes and things, and he continued to keep pushing and got way better today and he made an impact.”

These of course are early days and all the players are still getting to know one another and learn each other on the court. But competition and standout moments from young players is not only going to make the rest of camp and the preseason interesting, but also make decisions on final roster spots difficult for the front office.


Jazz guard Mike Conley shoots around at the end of practice at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. The Jazz veteran has been impressed with the team’s newcomers thus far.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News