Though Eastern Conference teams only make one trip to Salt Lake City each season to play the Utah Jazz, Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes found out Tuesday that he’ll be visiting twice in February.
The first stop will be for Wednesday night’s game against the Jazz. Then Barnes will return to the Beehive State on Feb. 17 to participate in the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend.
Utah, which is hosting the midseason festivities for the second time, will also be represented in the Rising Stars event, the NBA announced. Jazz center Walker Kessler was among 11 rookies selected for the annual honor.
The 21-year-old Barnes, who was named the 2021-22 Rookie of the Year, is averaging 15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game this season.
Barnes recently received some high praise from Warriors star Draymond Green after totaling 24 points, six rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots in Toronto’s 129-117 loss at Golden State this past Friday.
“He could be a lot better than me,” Green told The Athletic. “I saw a tweet the other day that said, ‘Scottie Barnes’ floor is Draymond Green.’ And that’s a damn good floor. And I believe that. He’s such a special talent.”
It’s not unusual for the 7-foot Kessler to be compared to the All-Star player he replaced in Utah, Rudy Gobert. Though he’s not at a Defensive Player of the Year level quite yet, Kessler has made a splash in his first NBA season by blocking an average of two shots in 20.2 minutes per game.
Kessler, who like Barnes is 21, averages 7.7 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting a remarkable 71.5 percent from the field. He was picked 22nd overall by Memphis last summer and has found a nice home in Utah after being traded twice since draft day.
“I’m thankful to my teammates and coaching staff,” Kessler said. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without them. Very, very excited. Very, very thankful. Very blessed. I’m gonna keep rambling, so I better stop, but very thankful.”
Though the Jazz aren’t nearly as good of a defensive team since trading Gobert to Minnesota last offseason, Kessler has filled more of that void than expected. And he was just a small part of the treasure trove Utah received in exchange for Gobert.
“The physical tools that he has allows him to have an opportunity to be successful,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “He’s shown so much growth on both ends of the floor. I think defense probably comes natural to Walker in a lot of ways, but his ability to learn the offense on the fly has been tremendous.”
Kessler’s production has picked up in the 15 starts he’s made: 10.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 26.0 minutes.
The Raptors enter Wednesday’s game having started a seven-game road trip 2-2.
“We need every win we can get. It’s just crunch time,” Fred VanVleet told reporters after Monday’s 114-106 loss to the Phoenix Suns. “It’s not time for us to try to take moral victories. We need real victories.”
Utah has won four of six games, including a 108-100 victory over Dallas on Saturday. Lauri Markkanen led the Jazz with 29 points and Kessler had a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds, plus five blocks.