Jazz rookie Kessler shines against a Raptors team in need of similar skills

Utah Jazz centre Walker Kessler (24) battles with Toronto Raptors' Thaddeus Young (21) and Scottie Barnes (4) for a rebound during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/AP Photo)

SALT LAKE CITY — Some of the biggest decisions the Toronto Raptors have had to make in years, it feels like, will be made in the coming week.

And if not by the Feb. 9 trade deadline, they figure to happen this summer around the draft and free-agency period.

It is a team in flux.

Overall, if you’re a Raptors fan, you have to feel pretty confident that the people making those decisions will do a good job. Team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have run the club for 10 years. In the first nine years, they only missed the playoffs once and won at least one playoff round five consecutive years in addition to the NBA title in 2019.

Year 10? The jury is out, but it’s not looking promising. The Raptors left Utah with a 23-30 record and sole possession of 12th place in the East after a 131-128 loss to the Jazz on Wednesday.

But no one is perfect when it comes to running an NBA team, and the Raptors have had a few misses around the margins of late. Stuff happens, but one of the reasons the Raptors have been so successful has been their ability to win in those areas — drafting Pascal Siakam 27th overall or Norm Powell 46th or O.G. Anunoby 23rd and signing Fred VanVleet as an undrafted free agent.

This all comes to mind watching Jazz rookie centre Walker Kessler, who has opened eyes as the 22nd overall pick out of Auburn this past summer.

Is the seven-foot-one rookie the second coming of Joel Embiid? No one is suggesting that. But just past the mid-point of his rookie season, people in Utah are wondering if he’s a more than a passable facsimile of Rudy Gobert, the three-time defensive player of the year the Jazz traded to Minnesota for a boatload of picks, matching salaries, and Kessler, who was chosen by the Timberwolves before being dealt.

“The sentiment I get on Kessler is everybody liked him, everybody thought he was going to be good,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “But maybe not this good, maybe not this soon.”

That he could have been a Raptor is the bigger point that we’ll get to, but in the meantime know Kessler put up 17 points (8-of-9 shooting), 14 rebounds and seven blocked shots — his specialty — against Toronto in the win for the Jazz, who improved to 27-26 in what is supposed to be a rebuilding year after an aggressive selloff last summer.

Maybe the Raptors brain trust should take notes.

The Raptors didn’t go quietly. They harassed the Jazz into lots of turnovers (Toronto had a 16-7 edge in the key category), earned a 25-13 edge on the offensive glass and were able to keep in even while their shooting was hit or miss — and more miss — for most of the early part of the game.

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The Raptors finally caught fire down the stretch, knocking in five threes in the final six minutes – three by Fred VanVleet, who finished with 34 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists for his second career triple-double. But the Jazz got some big plays of their own, including a three-point play by Mike Conley, a tough triple by Jordan Clarkson and a lay-up by Clarkson in traffic a play later that kept the Raptors at bay. Kessler had some big plays too with a lob finish, a put-back and a nice pass for a corner three that put Utah up eight before Toronto began clawing back.

In addition to VanVleet’s big night, Scottie Barnes had 18 points and 14 rebounds while all five Raptors starters hit double figures and Chris Boucher chipped in 16 points in 20 minutes off the bench. The Jazz were led by Lauri Markkanen, who had 26 points and 13 rebounds and shot 7-of-13 from the floor. Utah shot 53 per cent form the floor and made 17 threes, while the Raptors shot 49 per cent from the floor and made 10. The Raptors took 27 more shots than the Jazz, but …

“It don’t matter how many shots you get if they don’t go in,” said VanVleet. “We fought hard, it was a tough night at the rim, they certainly have some size down there and some good shot blockers. What did they end up with? Eleven blocked shots, countless others just making us miss.

Kessler was a big part of that. It’s early days, but he has already shown himself as a player to be reckoned with. He leads the NBA in blocked shot percentage after leading college basketball in shot-blocking last season. He’s fourth in offensive rebounding percentage and is shooting 71.5 per cent from the floor on a steady diet of lobs and put-backs.

The Raptors saw all of it.

Toronto trailed 96-92 to start the fourth quarter in what was a bit of box score miracle: The Jazz were shooting 54.7 per cent from the floor and had a 13-5 edge in threes made, but the Raptors’ 24-7 edge in offensive rebounding and 14-6 edge in turnovers allowed them to stay in the game.

But back to Kessler, an elite shot-blocker, good finisher and strong offensive rebounder who runs the floor exceptionally well – doesn’t he seem like someone the Raptors could use?

Well they could have had him, theoretically. Last year at the trade deadline the Raptors flipped draft positions with the San Antonio Spurs in the deal that brought the Raptors Thad Young and sent Goran Dragic to the San Antonio Spurs. Instead of picking 20th — where Kessler was still available — the Spurs took that slot and the Raptors had the Spurs’ second-round pick, No. 33.

What did they use it on? A rangy, shot-blocking centre. They were in the market.

Toronto has high hopes that Christian Koloko, who is third in blocked shots among rookies, will be able to provide the same qualities that Kessler provides the Jazz, but at the moment it’s hard to compare them. Kessler is doing now what the Raptors — maybe in their wildest dreams — are hoping Koloko will be able to do in time.

Kessler’s first quarter alone was proof of concept. He had four blocks in the first eight minutes of the game — starting modestly with a swat on VanVleet and building up to a crescendo when he spiked a floater by Young, sprinted the length of the floor and finished an alley-oop from Colin Sexton. The Raptors were 2-of-19 in the paint during Kessler’s first eight-minute stint and the Jazz led 21-13 and seemed poised for a blowout — the Raptors trailed by 14 early in the second quarter — before a blizzard of Jazz turnovers and Toronto offensive rebounds kept the visitors close.

Toronto had an 11-2 edge in turnovers and a 15-3 advantage in offensive rebounds, the main reasons they were able to go into the half trailing 65-60 even though Utah shot 55.8 per cent from the floor and made nine threes to the Raptors’ two.

But Kessler’s impact both now and potentially in the future was hard to ignore. How does he command the paint on defence so convincingly and — for such a young player — how does he do it without fouling?

“One his size, and length and athleticism, and he’s got great feet,” said Jazz head coach Will Hardy, who was an assistant with the Boston Celtics when Robert Williams emerged as an elite defender at centre. “Really good instincts around the basket. But he does such a good job of following the ball with his eyes. He doesn’t just jump blindly around the rim … he follows the ball with his eyes and then that allows him to what I think he does best, which is block shots with both hands, he doesn’t reach across his body a lot. And so to the officials that gives you the look of maintaining good defensive position … He’s a special athlete to me.”

None of those qualities were certain at the trade deadline a year ago when Toronto made the move for Young, who they hoped would add some depth for their playoff push, help in the development of Precious Achiuwa and take some of the leadership burden off VanVleet and Pascal Siakam.

Admirable goals but if they could do things over again would they keep the 20th pick and draft Kessler, who looks like he’ll be anchoring Utah’s defence for a decade or more?

I’d think so. The margins are slim in the NBA when you don’t have an MVP-level superstar to cover up your mistakes.

All season long the Raptors have been desperate for three-point shooting, so it has to hurt a little bit when they see what Yuta Watanabe is doing in Brooklyn this season. He was with Toronto for two seasons and struggled for playing time through injuries.

With the Nets? Watanabe is among the league leaders, connecting on 49 per cent from deep. Ish Wainright was a late cut in training camp a year ago who is a nice rotation piece for Phoenix. Raptors fans will always lament that with the 29th pick in the 2020 draft, Toronto took Malachi Flynn, while the 30th pick, Desmond Bane, is a budding star with the Memphis Grizzlies and one of the better young shooting guards in the league.

You can cherry-pick examples like those with almost every team. But for several years, it was the Raptors who seemed to win those ‘small’ moments and eventually they added up and led to a championship.

The hope is that as the Raptors embark on their next phase, they win more of them than they don’t.

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