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SALT LAKE CITY — In October, Walker Kessler sat in the Jazz locker room and joked about his "long and prosperous" era in Minnesota. It was all jokes on the other side, too, with Timberwolves coach saying, "The Kessler Era here was an amazing one!"
At that point, it was all fun and games for everyone.
The Timberwolves and their fans were still in the honeymoon phase of the blockbuster trade that landed Rudy Gobert for Kessler, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley and a hoard of draft picks. And anything Kessler did was just a bonus.
A few months later, feelings are a bit different. After Kessler's second return to Minnesota, Wolves fans might just be feeling a bit ill about what they gave up.
Kessler had 20 points, 21 rebounds, four assists and two blocks as the Jazz sneaked by Minnesota 126-125 Monday at the Target Center.
Wolves fans got to see up close what their 2022 draft pick has developed into — it's starting to look exactly like the type of player that was missing from the beloved 2021-22 squad. That hole has been filled by Gobert (with some inconsistent results), but was there a younger and cheaper version already on the roster? It's a tough thought for some in Minnesota.
That thought was made more relevant since Gobert missed most of the game with a strained groin he injured on Saturday. He had 2 points in just five minutes before he headed to the locker room for good, leaving fans to wonder even more what Kessler could have looked like in a Minnesota jersey.
Kessler rebounded everything that got near him, provided consistent rim protection, and even showed off a more confident offensive game.
Kessler was 9-of-13 from the field in his career night and became the first Jazz rookie ever to record a 20-20 game, and the first rookie in the league to do it since 2014.
"He was sensational, and he did so many good things for us," Jazz coach Will Hardy said.
Especially in pick-and-roll situations.
"Minnesota blitzed or had their big up in pick and roll for a majority of the game, and Walker did a fantastic job of getting into the pocket and making some great decisions for us," Hardy said.
Three of Kessler's assists came after he caught the ball as a roller, pivoted and then found an open teammate. That's a sign of things coming together more and more. Now, is it going to be perfect every time? Hardly. Kessler forced some shots and missed some passes as the roll guy on Saturday, but the ability is there. He's a fluid enough athlete and has good enough hands to be able to be very effective rolling in the paint.
"Your eyes can see what they need to see and your brain can tell you what they need to tell you, but if you can't physically do the first part, which is catch the ball comfortably and pivot to see the defense, it's really hard," Hardy said.
The good news is Kessler can do the first part, and is starting to show he can do the second part, too.
"The physical tools that he has allows him to have an opportunity to be successful," Hardy said of Kessler acting as a playmaker in the paint. "Whether he actually makes the right decision every time, who knows? We could see this defense again and he could have moments where he just makes the wrong choice."
He rarely did that on Monday — to the chagrin of the Minnesota faithful.
"My teammates have done a great job of helping me out a lot," Kessler said. "I wouldn't be able to do what I do without them and the coaching staff. They're so encouraging; they've encouraged me even when I fail. It's all props to them."
And plenty deserve props for the win, which was Utah's third in its last four games.
Jordan Clarkson had 21 points and made the game-winning free throw with 4.2 seconds left — after what was, once again, a back-and-forth finish (Minnesota's Jaden McDaniels missed an open 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have won it).
Collin Sexton had 19 points, four rebounds and four assists; and Mike Conley finished with 14 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Kessler wasn't even the only rookie to have a big game. Ochai Agbaji scored 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting in 31 minutes.
"Another game and another chaotic finish for the Jazz," Hardy said. "This is who we are at this point. We're perfectly imperfect. We're scrappy. We're tough. We've got heart. We go through great moments, we go through tough moments, but the guys never stop fighting. They never stop competing. They never stop sticking together."
It was Kessler, though, who was greeted with a hero's welcome as he got back to the locker room. His teammates surrounded him and gave him a water bottle shower as he stood there with a grin.
"It feels good. … We have a lot of guys from the Minnesota trade, so it felt good," Kessler said.
Who knows, the Kessler Era might be amazing in Utah, too.