The Jazz gave Ochai Agbaji a chance, and the rookie delivered

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SALT LAKE CITY — Lauri Markkanen had just scored a career-high 49 points to help the Utah Jazz end their five-game losing streak with a win over the Houston Rockets.

After flirting with 40 points a few times this season, Markkanen blasted through that mark and bested his old career-high of 38 by 11 points in what was a historic performance.

It was the first time a Jazz player had scored that many points in a regular season game since Karl Malone scored 56 back in 1998.

"I think it's obvious who the game ball goes to," Jazz coach Will Hardy said before pausing a beat for dramatic effect. "It goes to Ochai Agbaji."

Wait ... what was that?

Hardy wore a hoodie into the pregame press conference room wearing a Markkanen hoodie. He saw him put up 18 points in the first quarter and then 17 more in the fourth quarter.

And, well, he also had a point.

Markkanen was phenomenal on Thursday, and he cemented what already was a pretty strong All-Star case. He's been the seventh best scorer in the league over the last 10 games, and even with the ridiculous stat lines happening all across the league, 49 is nothing to sneeze at. He's becoming a legitimate star.

But the Jazz knew that before Thursday's explosion. What they didn't know, however, was how well Agbaji could do with extended meaningful minutes.

Turns out, pretty good.

During the break before the fourth quarter, Hardy drew up a play for Agbaji to get the ball as he cut to the rim. Hardy offered the rookie wing this instruction: "Get to your right hand and finish strong."

Mike Conley took it one step further. As the teams were returning to the court, Conley told Agbaji that if he had a chance to dunk on someone, he should do it.

He listened; Conley found Agbaji on his cut from the corner and the rookie slammed it in over Houston's Tari Eason. That was the beginning of Agbaji's run of play in a Utah Jazz jersey.

He played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter and finished with 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting, including going 3-of-4 from 3-point range, as he helped the Jazz pull away from the Rockets.

That from a player who thought he wasn't even going to be traveling. Following Tuesday's loss in Salt Lake City, where he made a surprise appearance for the Jazz, Agbaji said he would be staying in Utah to play with the Salt Lake City Stars.

It turns out, that was some date intel, but it shouldn't be too surprising that he thought that. Agbaji has spent much of the season bouncing between the Jazz and their G League affiliate. That's where he's picked up the NBA game — learning where exactly he can make an impact on winning and just how to be a pro.

It can be pretty unglamorous work bouncing around random cities playing in mostly empty gyms, but it was something Agbaji committed to and understood how it could help him break into the Jazz rotations.

"Just showing up every single day with a good attitude, not worrying about all the outside noise, because there's so much outside noise," he said. "Not worrying about that, but worry about what everyone in the Jazz (organization) is doing for me and what they're trying to do for me."

That mindset caught the eye of the Jazz.

Hardy admitted he couldn't have predicted Agbaji's performance on Thursday, but with the way he's handled everything else this season, he was confident he'd at least approach the game the right way. He saw how he handled playing poorly with the stars, having big games and everything in between, adnd he saw a player that was ready for a chance.

"It was time to try to get him some minutes and see how he did," Hardy said. "I'm not gonna sit here and pretend like I saw this coming, 'Oh yeah, Ochai's gonna go in the game and he's gonna have this type of performance.' But I think as a staff, we were very confident that his approach was going to be correct and that he was ready to dig in mentally to play in an NBA game — and an important game for us. We needed this win, and he was fantastic."

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