Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
ATLANTA — As Walker Kessler exited the court following Utah's 125-119 win over the Atlanta Hawks, a group of fans flanked the team's tunnel. Some had signs, a few wore Auburn pullovers, and others wore hoodies that represented his old high school, Woodland Academy, in nearby College Park.
Wednesday was homecoming for Kessler — and he had plenty in attendance that wanted to celebrate it with him.
"A lot of people — probably like 50; something like that," Kessler said. "Family, extended family, friends. I think my old high school has like two buses coming."
They all left happy.
Not only did Kessler's Jazz team win, he also played a critical role in the victory. He scored 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting, grabbed five rebounds and had three blocks. Most importantly: In his 10 second-half minutes, the Jazz turned a 10-point deficit into a win.
"A lot of excitement. It's cool," Kessler said before the game. "Playing in the NBA in your hometown, your family and friends coming to watch you play an NBA game, your whole life's kind of leading up to that. I say my whole life, I'm only 20, but it's definitely a cool feeling."
Kessler comes from a family of ball players. His father, Chad, starred for four years at the University of Georgia, his uncle, Alec, played four years in the NBA, and his grandfather also played collegiate ball.
The game is part of his family's DNA. His instincts around the rim, his awareness for where to be and his feel for the game can be traced back to that. It's not necessarily because it's hereditary — though he did get a leg up on the gene department — but because of the drills he ran with his father at a young age.
He didn't just go to a court and repeatedly shoot; he learned how to play.
Still, it took some convincing that a moment like Wednesday's was even possible.
During his junior season of high school, recruiters started beating his door down. He was one of the nation's most sought after prospects, and all of them laid out a plan for his future — a future that always included the NBA.
Suddenly, the smiley kid from Atlanta and self-described "big nerd" — he's just as happy to discuss "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" as he is to talk hoops — believed he could reach those kind of heights.
"I always knew what I was working towards," he said. "I knew that was the dream my whole life. But then, like, in actuality, when people started talking about and planning for the future and stuff, I was like, 'Oh, like this is like an achievable dream.'"
Once Kessler got to the NBA, it didn't take long for his coaches or teammates to see that he could play.
There's often not a lot of expectations for rookie big men. Yes, Kessler was the dominant defensive force in college, but that doesn't often make for a quick transition to the NBA.
Guards are quicker, more athletic and more clever; wings are sometimes just as long and tall as the centers they are attacking. The size and athletic advantages that have sparked so many great collegiate seasons often get nullified once bigs reach the NBA.
In that sense, Kessler isn't a typical rookie; this wasn't a project situation. Kessler had the timing to meet guys at the rim — and still block shots with both hands. He knew how to feel space to force tough looks. He, simply, could play at this level.
"Once we started playing together, you could tell," Jazz teammate Mike Conley said. "Defensively, he was kind of miles ahead of what you expect from a rookie, like that and I would talk to the coaches and was like, 'I think he could play like right now.'"
And the coaches agreed.
"We saw very early in training camp his ability to protect the rim," Jazz coach Will Hardy said. "He has unbelievable instincts, blocking shots, great timing; he uses both hands to block shots, which I think is pretty unique. So we knew that he would be able to help us on the defensive end."
Of course, he's still figuring stuff out. He's learning the different screening angles he needs to have in the NBA and how to space the floor as a cutter or dunker on the offensive end. But even that, he's shown an ability beyond his years to take information and process it quickly.
"I know he's a rookie, but I mean, he doesn't act like it," Lauri Markkanen said. "He's a very mature player."
But he's also still just 21 years old.
Before Wednesday's game, his eyes lit up as he saw family members in the crowd. He quickly made his way through the front rows and enthusiastically embraced each one. It was reminiscent of a young kid returning home after a long time away.
In some ways, that's just what Wednesday was. It turned into an extra happy reunion.
"They're very proud," Kessler said. "I wouldn't be here without my family or friends. So it's very cool for them to voice how proud they are and how happy they are for me."