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SALT LAKE CITY — Lauri Markkanen walked into the news conference room after Utah’s 108-100 win over the Dallas Mavericks with Walker Kessler in tow.
The two of them together have been quite a common sight of late. Ever since Kessler jokingly became the manager of Markkanen’s All-Star campaign, the two Jazz players have had fun playing around with constant banter and references (and it should be noted that it’s probably going to be a hit campaign next Thursday).
And when it was mentioned that the two have been pretty in sync lately, Markkanen was quick to reply: “Except wearing suits.”
Markkanen, who was wearing a navy pinstripe suit, turned to Kessler in his more modest outfit of jeans and sweater and said, “You don’t wear suits yet.”
“Yeah, you’ve got the resources; I’ve got the sweater resources,” the rookie center responded.
Thus began a fun back and forth between the two that lasted throughout the presser.
- When Kessler was reminded that Markkanen had more money than he did, he turned to his teammate and said, “Lauri, I have an investment opportunity. Have you ever heard of a restaurant called the Waffle House?” Unfortunately for Kessler, Markkanen hadn’t. When the Finnish striker shook his head, Kessler said: “We’ll get there. I’ll put up a powerpoint.” (Yes, the Atlanta native wants to bring the famous Southern eatery to Utah.)
- Kessler had just given a rather long answer when he turned to Markkanen and asked, “Do you have anything to add to that, Lauri?” Markkanen looked a bit taken aback. “No, I wasn’t listening,” he said. “I saw him (the reporter) look at you, so I stopped paying attention.” Markkanen then paused and patted Kessler’s leg and said: “Good answer.”
- Markkanen praised Kessler for earning himself a starting job before he was interrupted by Kessler, who said, “You’re going to make me shed a tear, man.”
The two of them have obviously built a report on the press conference podium, but it’s happening on the court as well. In Saturday’s win over the Mavericks, the Jazz revealed what could end up being their new starting lineup: Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Kelly Olynyk, Markkanen and Kessler.
It’s a lineup that features two 7-footers (Kessler and Markkanen) and another (Olynyk) just shy of that mark. Kessler has been a starter since Olynyk injured his ankle, but he’s progressed so quickly this season that Jazz coach Will Hardy kept him in, even when Olykyk returned Saturday. Utah went to the jumbo lineup right out of the gate.
“Kelly and Lauri have the ability to open up the floor as shooters,” Hardy said. “Walker, obviously, the presence of him filtering and rolling to the rim, I think he still fits very well into our offensive concept when those two guys are there; and then defensively, we’re big.”
Markkanen had 29 points and five rebounds, and Kessler had 14 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in the win. Utah led by as many as 19 points in the third quarter before stopping a rally by Dallas, which featured no Luka Doncic, late.
Markkanen was used to playing with a similarly large lineup in Cleveland last year when he was a small forward alongside Jarret Allen and Evan Mobley with the Cavs. He said having that kind of short size gives perimeter defenders more confidence to rush the ball more.
“It sure is a fun way to play,” Markkanen said.
Olynyk was limited to just 15 minutes in his first game back from an ankle injury; but in the 10 minutes the starters played together Saturday, the Jazz had a defensive rating of 85.7. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but it was a good early return. (The lineup had played just 26 minutes together before Saturday and had similar defensive numbers.)
“Defensive end, being able to pressure guys and contest the rim, but not only that, but really focus on the defensive side of rebounding,” Kessler said. “I mean, having three guys like that, it’s hard to get an offensive rebound against a lineup like that.”
Utah outscored Dallas by 18 on Saturday; and considering the Jazz have been hurt multiple times this season on the backboards, that’s a positive sign to move on.
“Hopefully that continues to be an advantage for us going forward,” Hardy said. “I think our job as a staff is always to look at our team and try to see the strengths of all of our guys. And when we put different lineups on the floor, what are the potential strengths of those groups and try to build on those things. So hopefully the rebound can continue.”
Let’s hope the Kessler and Markkanen Post-Game Show continues as well.