Editor’s note: Seventh in a series of stories grading all the Utah Jazz players from the 2023-24 roster.

Walker Kessler was a revelation in his rookie NBA season with the Utah Jazz. He had the kind of season that a normal 22nd overall draft pick only dreams of. He finished third overall in Rookie of the Year voting, he was on the Rising Stars team during All-Star Weekend in Utah, and was an All-Rookie First Team selection.

That led to an offseason where he was invited to participate with Team USA, with huge expectations going into his second NBA year. So how did he measure up to those expectations?

Walker Kessler — C

Right up front, it’s important to point out that despite some struggles during the 2023-24 season, Kessler did maintain a clear defensive edge and was still getting the same playing time he was during his rookie season (averaging 23.3 minutes per game). So it’s not like he fell off a cliff as far as performance goes.

The problem is two-fold — there wasn’t marked improvement, and because of his rookie success there were huge expectations for him. There’s some nuance and context to all of this that we’ll get into, but I think it’s important to note that Kessler is the first to admit that he struggled this season and he never handled it in the best way.

“I think that you can either crash and burn, or look for the good out of it and try to learn from it,” he said. “I haven’t been close to crashing and burning, but I’ve been close to being overheated with a little turbulence.”

First of all, being with Team USA did not go the way that Kessler thought it was going to. He didn’t play much and when he came back to the Jazz, the team was drastically different — insert John Collins — and it was all made different once again at the trade deadline.

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In all of the inconsistency of the season, Kessler never allowed himself the room to just sit back and take in criticism, find ways to improve and realize that the NBA world is going to continue to change and turn over no matter what. Instead, he moped quite a bit. He was mad at himself, frustrated with dealing with different situations, disappointed and he let all of those emotions get the best of him.

There were clearly things that Kessler could have improved on between his rookie season and second season, things that would have made his second season a soaring success, but because he didn’t, it’s now imperative that he shows he can improve in those areas in his third season because if he doesn’t, then he might start losing some of the people that have faith in him.


Offensively, Kessler was not a huge threat in his rookie season and he mostly got his points off offensive rebounds and being in the dunker spot. The same was true this past season. The common refrain from Jazz coach Will Hardy has been that Kessler does not get a ton of plays run for him so he has to involve himself offensively. The subtext there though, is that the Jazz are not running plays for Kessler for a reason.

Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) throws a shoe to the crowd after the game in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 11, 2024. Utah won 124-121. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Kessler desperately needs to improve as a screener. If he were a better screener the Jazz would likely run a lot more pick-and-roll with him in the play and they would put him in a position to be a part of the offense in more ways than just a cleaner. Also, he has got to improve his free-throw shooting and his around-the-rim touch, where he regressed a bit this year.

The Jazz were pleasantly surprised with how well Kessler’s rookie season went, but they knew that creating consistency and being able to replicate that success was going to be the key. But plateauing at 22 is also not an option. There needs to be improvement along with sustained success. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case for Kessler this season.

The Jazz are nowhere near giving up on Kessler. They want him to be a part of the future in Utah and they want him to realize his potential. So the 2024-25 season is going to be massively important for him to prove that he’s willing to put in the work and be the kind of player that will exceed expectations.

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