On Wednesday, Jazz fans received the unfortunate news that the team would be without Walker Kessler for at least two weeks with a UCL sprain. It’s a critical hit to an already struggling team, notably on the defensive end of the floor.
Utah is already ranked the 29th-best defensive team in the league in terms of defensive rating, and now the rotation is stripped of its most important defender. It now falls on the surrounding cast and HC Will Hardy to make the necessary adjustments to recover from losing the second-best player they have on hand.
With that, here are three players who have to step up for the Jazz during the absence of Walker Kessler:
Once the Jazz announced Kessler was out for Wednesday night’s contest, we saw offseason acquisition John Collins secure the start at center. While he’s seen a start in each of his first nine games with Utah, seeing coach Hardy opt to slide him down to the five and go smaller without Kessler rather than bigger was an intriguing decision.
Without the defensive presence of Kessler, the responsibility to get stops of the interior effectively falls onto Collins to be the one to step up to the plate. He won’t be completely alone on that end of the floor, thanks to what Lauri Markkanen can bring as a rim protector, but it effectively does force him to step outside of the usual assignments seen up to this point.
With a tough matchup such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Anthony Davis soon on the horizon come November 21st, a tall task awaits defensively for Collins. It might be too steep to expect him to totally stop one of the best bigs in the NBA, but we’ll see if he has what it takes to at least contain his dominance en route to a win.
After starting each of his 68 games during his previous season for the Jazz, Kelly Olynyk has since been relegated to a bench role to kick off the 2023-24 NBA season. However, that role should be projected to increase with the recent loss of Kessler.
While he’s remained very efficient through his first nine games (59.5/41.2/83.3), his counting stats have been a bit lessened from a season ago to start Olynyk’s year, averaging 7.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. He’s not the defensive anchor that Kessler is, but is the best reserve option to look as a big thanks to his scoring and playmaking ability.
So long as he can fix his recent prevalent fouling issues (posting 4+ fouls in four of his past six games), Olynyk should be readily able to step up to the task.
With the Jazz now losing out on their best defensive player for a few games, the impact of the rest of this team’s positive defenders becomes that much more important. Especially with Ochai Agbaji being granted a slot into the starting five, we should expect to see an increased role from the second-year wing.
He might not bring the interior presence that Kessler does, but gives Utah a coveted perimeter defender with ideal wing versatility.
Agbaji saw his minutes take a steep increase after Kessler was deemed out with an injury, going from 11 minutes in the game before to a season-high 26 against the Indiana Pacers. While it didn’t result in a game-breaking performance (posting three points, four rebounds, and one block), seeing him manage to find a significant place in the rotation is a great step in the right direction.
Through these next few games without Kessler, Agbaji should continue to find nice consistency in the starting five to bring the Jazz needed production on both ends of the floor.