Las Vegas • While their physical dimensions are similar, their résumés are not.
Can Walker Kessler possibly hope to fill the Rudy Gobert-sized hole the Utah Jazz now have on their roster?
The rookie center, who was introduced to Utah media on Sunday afternoon, has enough self-awareness to recognize he’s not yet in a position to replicate the exploits of a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and a four-time All-NBA honoree.
He also wisely avoided making any promises about what he can achieve, while vowing to follow the characteristics of Gobert that he can have some control over — working hard, adhering to the Jazz coaching staff’s mandates, and bringing a cerebral approach to the game.
The 7-foot-1, 245-pounder blocked 19.1% of opponents’ two-point attempts while on the floor — the highest individual block rate in the NCAA since Sports Reference began recording the statistic in 2009-10. He said some of that success can be attributed to studying the nuances of the man he was traded for.
“Rudy Gobert is definitely one of the greatest shot-blockers to ever play the game. So, watching him and how he attacks the ball, and his timing, and how it’s not just about his size and length, but how there’s a lot of mental components to his shot-blocking ability,” Kessler said. “So I’ve definitely been watching him. And I’m excited to be in a place where I can emulate that, potentially.”
Kessler credited Auburn assistant coach Steve Pearl with helping him hone his defensive approach.
Given that the Tigers were loaded with scoring options (including Jabari Smith, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2022 draft), it was made clear to Kessler — a former five-star recruit out of Woodward Academy in Georgia — that the best way for him to have an impact on games would come on the other end of the floor.
Pearl stressed the need for Kessler to become a singular defensive system, a player able to not merely hold his own man in check, but one capable of disrupting all five of the opposing players on the court.
Kessler once again invoked Gobert and some of the principles that have made him such a chaos-inflicting defensive force, and how he has tried to integrate them into his own game.
“His timing and how he attacks the ball in a strategic way, it’s very analytical: watching film, understanding what that guard’s gonna do, understanding when to jump, when to be vertical, when to attack the ball. I think that I approach the defensive side of the game a lot differently than a lot of other players do,” Kessler said. “It’s not just about blocking shots, it’s about how you block those shots, and how to stay out of foul trouble, when to attack and when to just be in the way.”
There’s certainly a lot to like him defensively. Yes, his 7-5 wingspan and incredible rim protection from a drop-big scheme led to him averaging 4.6 blocks per game this past season, but that alone is not why he won the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award. He was disciplined, rarely biting on shot fakes; he committed only 2.6 fouls per game (4.0 per 40 minutes); he was an excellent help defender and weak-side rotator; and he displayed decent mobility for a big man, with the athleticism to block some perimeter jump shots.
None of which means he’s not without his flaws.
His poor performances tended to come against longer, more skilled bigs with an array of post moves. Florida’s Colin Castleton racked up 22 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks vs. Kessler on Jan. 8, and 19 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks in the Feb. 19 rematch.
Still, most of Kessler’s weaknesses are on the offensive side.
When he committed to North Carolina, and later transferred to Auburn, he did so with the reputation of a face-up, stretch-5. Except, he never really showed off that skill in college — going 1 of 4 from deep with the Tar Heels, and just 10 of 50 with the Tigers. Like Gobert, he also is not well-regarded as a back-to-the-basket option, as he generally lacks any semblance of go-to post moves.
He is, at least, an adept screen-setter, and a great option at the rim in pick-and-roll sets — hitting 70.2% of his two-point attempts at Auburn.
Now, he’s ready to get going.
While he suffered a minor toe injury during the predraft process that “set [him] back a bit” and prompted the Jazz’s training staff to hold him out of Las Vegas Summer League play as he works on his conditioning, Kessler said he feels “great” and was excited to get cleared.
He comes from a long line of basketball players — one grandfather played at the University of Minnesota, while his dad, uncle, and older brother all played for Georgia. And yet, he made clear, he’s never played basketball because he was expected to.
“Growing up in a basketball family, you’re introduced to it at a pretty young age, but I never felt pressured into it or forced into it,” Kessler said. “I loved it [initially] because that’s what they did and I wanted to be like them, and then I found my own love for basketball as I grew up in it and started playing more.”
The self-described “pretty interesting guy” has other loves, too. Being home-schooled for a year led to mass consumption of books such as “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Eragon,” which had the cumulative effect of making him a “big nerd.” His dad and brother got him into classic rock bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and he took up playing the guitar 4 or 5 years ago. He also plays another sport, and is extremely competitive about it.
“I’ll beat anybody at table tennis,” he boasted with a laugh. “If any of y’all ever want to hit me up, we’ll play a couple matches.”
For now, though, his focus is on hoops.
He acknowledged that everything that’s happened since draft night — when he was technically selected No. 22 overall by the Memphis Grizzlies, but shipped to Minnesota in a prearranged deal — has been a bit stressful.
“I’ve been in the league for two weeks now and I’ve been traded twice, so it’s been a little crazy,” he said. The subsequent Jazz trade “definitely, definitely caught me off guard. Going through that — while it was a little bit of a whirlwind, like, ‘What team am I playing for?’ — knowing what I know now, it’s going to help me, moving forward.”
Now that he’s settled, though, he’s coming in with no expectations. Immediate playing time? A consistent spot in the rotation? Those are worries for down the road.
For now, like a young Rudy Gobert circa 2013, he’s putting himself in the hands of the coaching staff and trusting that they’ll get him to where he needs to be.
“Whatever the team feels is best,” Kessler said, “is whatever I’m going to do.”