“He Was Fantastic” | Agbaji’s Career Night A Product Of Impressive Mental Fortitude

On a night when Lauri Markkanen dropped a career-high 49 points — the most points scored by a jazz player in the regular season in the past 30 years — it was a rookie who stole the headlines.

After bouncing between the NBA and G-League for the season, Ocahi Agbaji had a career night on Thursday against Houston. He finished with 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting from deep in 18 minutes — all of which were career highs.

“I think it’s obvious who the game ball goes to; It goes to Ochai Agbaji,” head coach Will Hardy said postgame. “Lauri’s a very good player and he had 49 points, but Ochai also had his career-high. I have a lot of respect for Ochai and the way he’s approached his work every day so far this season.

After going scoreless in his opening stint in the first half, Agbaji gave the Jazz a needed spark with his defensive physicality. Using his size and quickness on offense, he was aggressive and allowed the offense to stay in rhythm whenever he got the ball.

But nobody saw what was coming in the fourth.

Playing the entire 12 minutes, he scored all 11 of his points in the first five minutes. Not only was he lights out from beyond the arc, but his athleticism was also on full display when he threw down a nasty dunk over Houston’s Tari Eason.

“I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I saw this coming,” Hardy said. “I think as a staff, we were very confident that his approach was going to be correct and that he was ready to dig in mentally to play in an NBA game. He was fantastic.

His special night came just 48 hours after Hardy gave the rookie some incredible praise.

When asked postgame following Utah’s loss to Sacramento about Agbaji, Hardy said it was time the Jazz get Agbaji on the court.

“Yeah, I think it’s time that Ochai finds some minutes,” he said. “He’s worked really, really hard … we need his physicality, we need his athleticism, especially on the defensive end.”

Appreciating what Hardy had to say about him, Agbaji has stayed focused on what he can control and only what he can control. Knowing his time would come, he didn’t let the outside noise affect how he prepared each day at practice.

“Just showing up every single day with a good attitude, not worrying about all the outside noise because there’s so much outside noise,” Agbaji said. “Not worrying about that, but worrying about what everyone in the Jazz (organization) is doing for me and what they’re trying to do for me.”

Despite the career game, Hardy and the Jazz believe this was just another step in the right direction for Agbaji. There will still be growing pains, ups and downs, highs and lows — but if Agbaji can stay levelheaded throughout it all and keep displaying the same mental fortitude, he should see more of the court the rest of the year.

“We’ve reached a point in the season where he’s put in a really good body of work, and it was time to try and get him some minutes and see how he did,” Hardy said. “I’m not sure you ever know if somebody is ready, but when we look at Ochai and the way he’s approached every day and his mentality that he’s had when he’s been in the G-League, the way he’s dealt with good games, the way he’s dealt with bad games, the way he’s dealt going back and forth, he’s never complained.”

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