This time last year, Utah Jazz guard Ochai Agbaji was leading Kansas on a thrilling NCAA Tournament run that culminated with the school's fourth national championship as well as him winning Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four. A few months later, he was the No. 14 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and a few months after that he was dealt to the Utah Jazz in the Donovan Mitchell trade.
The past year has been a whirlwind for Agbaji, both on and off the court. Lately, his hard work has been rewarded with a spot in Utah's starting lineup. Since the All-Star break, he's averaging 12.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists, while shooting 35.8% from 3-point land and taking on serious defensive responsibilities.
CBS Sports recently caught up with Agbaji to talk about Kansas, the trade, trying to dunk on people and the Jazz's playoff push.
CBS Sports: I don't know if you saw De'Aaron Fox's comments the other day about how he can't watch college basketball anymore. What is your relationship with Kansas and your feelings towards the college game these days?
Ochai Agbaji: I actually got to make it back to a game this past year and that was my first game going in person since I was being recruited there my senior year in high school. So it was really cool going back, and obviously, I still talk to those guys and they had a really good season this year. I've still been keeping up. I like keeping up with college basketball, I think it will always stay with me and I'll always support Kansas to the utmost.
CBS Sports: You spent four years at Kansas. Are there still things from college that you lean on? Or by this point in your rookie season is it more important to focus on what you're learning every day?
Agbaji: It's obviously a different game in college but playing under coach [Bill] Self, Hall of Fame basketball coach, there's still stuff I take from him that I'm probably gonna have forever, just that pertains to the basketball mindset, approach, all that. So, that's gonna stick with me for sure.
CBS Sports: Is there anything specific on that side that?
Agbaji: Really just having a winner's mindset. That goes in a lot of ways of – preparation, attention to detail, execution, communication, leadership in different ways on the floor.
It means a lot of things, so you could have your own definition for it, but, yeah, that's how it is for me.
CBS Sports: You go from winning a national championship, Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four, to getting DNPs and going down to the G League. What was that transition process like, and did your early struggles make his recent stretch of starting games more rewarding?
Agbaji: This recent stretch has been rewarding because of all the stuff that I went through and all the patience that I've had this year with working and getting better and finding my spot. You know, early on, coming into the season and kind of having to start over, you know, the building blocks of being a rookie and all that – it's, it's a process but at the same time you got to know it's a process. You got to know what it's all for, what's the end goal for you, what's the plan for you. So, I'm kind of just going into this season, having a plan for myself was the best thing that I could have done for myself.
CBS Sports: You're in a bit of a unique spot having played four years in college, compared to so many guys now who are one and done or come from overseas. Do you talk to different guys about their experiences?
Agbaji: Yeah, I mean, there's those guys that have come into the league – Talon [Horton-Tucker] for example, he came into the league after his first year. So he, I mean, obviously he's been in the league and experienced a lot more than I have. But in another sense, not that he said that he wishes he stayed in college, but there's experiences in college that I had that he didn't get to go through or get to play through or anything like that.
So, it's kind of, you know, however you see it in a way but I think it is cool having that experience from college, and then him and other guys having that experience being in the pros longer than I am, but still the same age. So I think it's cool.
CBS Sports: Let's talk about the trade a little bit. You play Summer League with the Cavs, and then were you settled in Cleveland when it happened? Did someone just call one day and say 'hey, you're going to Utah actually'? How did that process work?
Agbaji: Yeah, so my agent did. I was actually getting stuff for – so, it was on a Friday and I was gonna be moving to Cleveland on that Saturday. I was gonna drive up there, had all my stuff packed, I already got my apartment and I was moving in that Saturday. I was getting some stuff from the store and then I got the call in the parking lot that I was being traded to the Jazz.
So right then and there you know, obviously you got all the logistics and stuff that go into it right after that. I handled that but your mental has to shift from playing in the East, playing with the Cavs – I had the schedule, I was preparing for the schedule, preparing for preseason, training camp, all that stuff. And then just like, alright, you're gonna go to a different team now and figure it out from there.
That's just kind of how it is, at the professional level and I learned right away and I think that's beneficial for me moving forward, seeing how this is all business at the end of the day but there's still basketball within it too, as far as doing my job and, and showing up every day and being a good teammate and all that.
So, really just flipping my mindset, going into the Jazz, how can I flip this, you know, being positive about it, coming with a great attitude and just trying to get better in every way that I can.
CBS Sports: I know you weren't fully with the team yet, but did it help having other guys from the Cavs coming with you to the Jazz?
Agbaji: Yeah, for sure. I mean, having Lauri [Markkanen] and Colin [Sexton] come from the Cavs, even though I had never met them, it was still cool coming in with a lot of guys that came from the team that I was supposed to be at. And then other guys being traded in too. So it was kind of a mixture of a lot of guys coming from their separate teams, knowing each other and then, you know, meeting each other and coming together as a collective group.
CBS Sports: So the season finally starts, you're playing a little bit. Did you have a "welcome to the NBA" moment?
Agbaji: I'll always say my welcome to the NBA moment was getting traded. I mean, like nothing on the court. It's crazy how the craziest thing in my rookie season was nothing on the court. Which in a way is good because I'm not backing down from anyone, I'm not playing fearful out there against anyone. So yeah, I would say that was my welcome to the NBA moment.
CBS Sports: A lot of people say the pro game is much faster, there's obviously more space. What has been the biggest difference to you from college to the NBA?
Agbaji: You just hit it right on the point there. Just a lot more space out there, a lot more space. It's a lot more mental, just because everyone's at the same point of athleticism and focus level, skill level, talent level, all that. So really the mental aspect is what separates you and being consistent and playing the right way, making the right reads and being quick and efficient too.
CBS Sports: Does the longer schedule and having so many games play into the mental aspect as well?
Agbaji: Yeah, for sure. It's a grind. I knew it was a grind coming in and, and right now at this point of the season it's a grind, no one can tell you any different. That's how it is.
But really, for me, my mindset is really taking it game by game. Taking it game by game makes it way easier because if you look at it like, oh we have two games this week or we have three games next week or, you know, we go on a road trip next week for 10 days, then you can kind of be like, oh this is taking forever, like this is a long season.
But then if you're taking it game by game and it's like, oh, we're already to our 77th game or something like that. Like we're almost the whole way. So, that's just kind of how it's been.
CBS Sports: So you recently got moved into the starting lineup. How does that work? Does coach Hardy just come in one day and say, "hey, you're gonna start now"?
Agbaji: Yeah, basically that's how it is, you always have to be ready, I always have to be ready no matter what. Never know, you know, injuries, sicknesses, stuff can change in a day, stuff can change really, really fast. So just gotta be ready no matter what, whether you're coming off the bench or starting, just be ready for that situation wherever they're putting you at.
CBS Sports: Does starting change your mindset or approach?
Agbaji: Yeah it changes the whole entire approach and how my mindset is going into the game – what I'm gonna be looking for in my shots, where I'm gonna be getting my shots, all that stuff. Going back to the drawing board, watching film when I'm working out pregame or shootaround just getting those shots, getting use to what I'm gonna be seeing that night. That's really it, just focusing in on what's gonna change with that starting role as opposed to coming off the bench.
CBS Sports: OK, can I ask you about trying to dunk on people? You've tried to throw it down on Brook Lopez, Evan Mobley and Joel Embiid, three of the best rim protectors in the league. Are you just going to the rim and whoever's there is there? Do you want to try and dunk on guys like that?
Agbaji: It's more of going to the rim no matter who's there. If you see Joel on the weak side and you see him about to challenge you and you're like 'oh I'm about to dunk on Joel' and you're thinking about Joel, you're probably gonna get blocked at the rim. So you just gotta go up and think dunk before anything, before he even gets a chance to leave his feet. You gotta go in with that mindset and keep going with that mindset.
CBS Sports: Have you had any interactions with any of them afterward? Or are plays like that not as big of a deal to you guys as they are to us since there's so many games and so many plays?
Agbaji: Yeah, I mean, it's so many games, a lot of basketball and this happens a lot, every single game in the NBA I'd say it happens. Someone makes a tough shot and you're like 'oh that's a good shot,' or they make a good move on you and you're like 'that's a good move.'
That's just how basketball is because you're not gonna be perfect on everything, you're not gonna stop him perfectly. They're not gonna make the perfect move every time. But if they do it's like 'fair game, respect, that was a good move.' And then my mindset is you're not gonna get that again. Like, you got a good move on me, that's about it for you. Same thing goes with a block. I challenged you at the rim, you got me, I'm gonna go again. No matter what, if I get another chance I'm gonna go again at you.
CBS Sports: Switching to the defensive side of the ball now, where you have a lot of responsibility. What is the preparation like when there's so many great scorers and you aren't having two-hour practices before every game like you would in college?
Agbaji: Yeah, it's a lot of individual film tailored to your position or who you're gonna be guarding that particular night. So that's a nice thing in the NBA, you have a million coaches to help you out – player development, film, assistant coaches obviously, to help you out and get you in the right position to succeed. Whether you're guarding a tough matchup and you're just trying to make it tough for them, take away their tendencies, whatever it is to get an advantage.
CBS Sports: I'm not sure enjoy is the right word, but is there anyone you've appreciated going against? Just getting that challenge and experience?
Agbaji: I would say it's everybody. It's every tough matchup or All-Star that I'm guarding that night, whether it's Dame [Lillard], Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal. Whoever it is, it's kind of that respect for their game, knowing what they can do and trying to take that away from them, but also not playing into their game.
CBS Sports: I know you're still early in your career, but have there been any moments where you've realized you've leaned on a past experience? Just anything where you felt more comfortable or that you had a better idea of what's going on than you did when the season started?
Agbaji: Yeah, for sure. I think with guarding different guys, we're gonna have different coverages every night. It's not gonna be the same. I may not be on a guy singular, you may be trapping them, running, jumping, all that stuff. So really it's a collective effort.
I always say it's a collective effort because it's not just one person guarding the best player, because if it was, then you're putting that person in a tough situation unless they're the best defender ever. It's a collective effort every single night – knowing where your help is; where you're sending them; can you trust that they're there?; can you trust that they'll have your back?
It's just leaning on that every single night when we're playing against All-Stars, guys that are averaging 30, getting to the line all the time. Just trying to make it tough on them.
CBS Sports: Lastly, you come from Kansas and winning a national title, to playing on a Jazz team that everyone was expecting to tank. How much have you enjoyed this playoff race and being in competitive games every night?
Agbaji: I'd say just coming from Kansas it goes a little bit off of the stuff that I learned from Kansas – what it takes to win, the fourth quarter, all the stuff that's magnified in the last five minutes that really decides the game.
I feel like the Jazz this year, before the trade deadline, all the groups that we've had have always competed. I feel like we haven't had a lot of blowout games, whether we're blowing a team out or they're blowing us out.
It's always been a close game, it seems like every single game. So just watching those late game possessions when I was on the bench and then now being in that moment, doing what it takes to win – whether it's getting a rebound, getting a crucial stop, executing late, making sure we get a good shot, putting yourself in the best position to win.