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SALT LAKE CITY — It was probably fair to wonder if Walker Kessler had hit the dreaded rookie wall heading into Sunday's game.
Just look at his splits:
- December: 9.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 74% shooting in 23.7 minutes.
- January: 6.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.0 blocks, 66% shooting in 16.0 minutes.
It's not that he's been particularly bad, he just hasn't made coach Will Hardy keep him on the court since the calendar turned over. On Saturday against the Bulls, he played just 13 minutes — his lowest total since November.
Then Sunday happened.
Kessler had five blocks in his first seven minutes of action; it was absurd. And he was pretty good the rest of the way, too. Kessler finished with 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting, 11 rebounds and six blocks in Utah's loss at Memphis.
So what was different on Sunday?
"Just focusing on trying to attack the ball," Kessler said. "There's a balance between being vertical but understanding that one of my best attributes is timing and being able to go towards the ball. So I really focused on that tonight."
Instead of just worrying about staying vertical and not fouling, Kessler attacked the ball. The results were pretty promising.
He swatted a shot in a post-up situation, and he was good sliding over to help out his teammates. His best of the night came when he got caught in a mismatch on a close out. Instead of getting blown by as he raced up to the 3-point line, he recovered and made a block at the rim.
"I've been around a lot of young players in the NBA and I've been around some very, very high level bigs in the NBA," Hardy said. "I've been spoiled, and his timing and his ability to block shots with both hands, I think, is what makes him so special."
Some players prefer to attack the ball with their dominant hand; Kessler is not one of them. Left or right, it's all the same to him. Heck, he even looked like he's at a volleyball net and spiked the ball with two hands.
"I feel like he blocks just as many shots as left hand as his right hand, and it gives him such an advantage," Hardy said. "He also does such a good job of when he goes vertical, he follows the ball with his eyes, and so late he can make a play with his hand."
Kessler has officially played more games this season than he has in any other year of playing basketball, and that's usually when the rookie wall hits. Fatigue, both physically and mentally, creeps in and is difficult to overcome.
Still, Hardy doesn't think the three-game sample size in January is evidence of Kessler slowing down.
"When people talk about the rookie wall, it's not just your legs, it's your head," Hardy said. "It's hard to continue to ramp up for the games and prep and dig into all the film stuff, but he's done such a good job of taking care of his body and having that great approach every day."
Hardy has a hunch Kessler will keep that approach through the next 39 games, too. And his performance on Sunday will just be another thing he can build on.
"I think the best thing for him and his rookie year is learning on the fly," Hardy said. "He got almost 24 minutes tonight against a really good team. And I think he'll be able to go back and look at the film and see the things he did well and the things he can do better on both ends of the court."