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Momentum-changing block just the latest example of Ochai Agbaji's growth with Jazz


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SALT LAKE CITY — Ochai Agbaji didn't know if he was going to get back in time.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Amir Coffey forced a turnover and raced up the court for what looked to be an uncontested chance at the rim. Agbaji was just behind the play and had to get around Clippers forward Brandon Boston Jr. to even have a chance at defending it.

With a burst of acceleration, Agbaji closed to the rim, where he hoped he'd be able to block a layup attempt — except there was no layup attempt. Coffey took off with the ball in both hands, and Agbaji had the thought: "OK, now I'm up in the air, now I gotta block it or I'm about to get dunked on."

As Agbaji flew back, he put his hand up in front of the rim and knocked the ball away from Coffey to complete one of the best blocks of the season by the Jazz or anyone else in the NBA. But the highlight was just getting started.

Jordan Clarkson saved the ball between his legs as he jumped out of bounds, and Collin Sexton finished it off with a one-handed dunk on the other end in one of the more memorable plays of Utah's 126-103 win over the Clippers on Wednesday.

"The chase down block — those moments for us are so exciting because not only did he make a great play for our team, but it changed the momentum of the game," Jazz coach Will Hardy said. "It changes the energy in our building. And I think those are the types of plays that our fans react to more than anything, those big hustle plays and toughness plays. So I thought that really sparked us."

It was the latest example of Agbaji making a winning play. But Wednesday wasn't his best night since he was introduced into the rotation early in January; he didn't have a big night scoring (4 points on 2-of-2 shooting), and he was one of the unlucky ones that had to try and stop Normal Powell, who was on an absolute heater (30 points on just 15 shots).

Agbaji had moments where he was aggressive on switches and other times where he had lapses. He's a rookie and some rough moments are expected. For Hardy, he sees those mistakes as a chance to grow — and grow quickly.

"It's good to have a little bit of failure in a game because then it's, OK, can you re-center yourself, and the next time you step on the court in this game, can you come in with a different approach and execute a little bit better?" Hardy said.

That's what stood out to Hardy about the big highlight play from his rookie wing. It didn't matter that Agbaji hadn't gotten many offensive touches or that he had struggled at times to guard Powell, or anything else. When Agbaji saw an opportunity to immediately affect the game, he took it. He sprinted back on a play that looked like a lost cause and electrified the crowd.

Agbaji has been a core member of Hardy's rotation for eight games now; and in those games, he's averaged 7.4 points, 2.5 rebounds and shot 63% from the field and 58% from the 3-point line — all while having to often guard the opposing team's best perimeter player.

"He's just learning that every night he can find different ways to contribute, even if it's not making five 3s in the game," Hardy said.

For Hardy, it's less about the made shots or the chase down block, but how Agbaji carries himself on the floor. He sees a player who feels — no, who knows — he belongs on the court with the best in the world.

That, Hardy said, is one of the biggest hurdles for a rookie to get over. Now that he has made it over that hurdle, Agbaji has started to thrive on the team.

Agbaji said there wasn't a moment he really knew he belonged, but that it's been a steady progression of confidence over the course of the season.

"I think it's just more game-by-game, getting more comfortable, coach having more trust in me on the defensive end of guarding and having those matchups," Agbaji said. "You have to have that sense of confidence in yourself, and that's what I have as far as stopping their guy or making it difficult for him to get easy looks."

Confidence that surely grew after his big block on Wednesday.

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