Walker Kessler knew he was being traded, but he played along anyway.
The Memphis Grizzlies had selected the center with the 22nd pick in the NBA draft, and would soon be sending Kessler to Minnesota. But when Kessler was interviewed at the NBA’s press center, all three questions were about his fit with the Grizz. Kessler answered them all.
“At that time, I knew I was going to Minnesota. But I didn’t know if there was a rule where I couldn’t like reveal that I was going to Minnesota. So that was definitely interesting,” Kessler laughed.
There was a lot the basketball world apparently didn’t know about Kessler then.
The Timberwolves would soon decide to move on from Kessler too, to get another big, rim-protecting center — the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert. It was a moonshot for the Wolves, as they tried to make the leap into true contention status.
To this point, those moves haven’t worked out for Memphis or Minnesota. Kessler is making them both look foolish. The young big man is the Utah Jazz’s most promising young piece, one that has turned out to be a defensive force much sooner than anyone expected.
Should Walker Kessler be in the starting lineup?
So what’s stopping the rookie’s immediate ascension into the starting lineup, permanently?
Kessler leads the entire league in blocks per minute. Even coming off the bench, he’s all the way up to fourth in the league in blocks per game. (The star he was traded for, Gobert, is down at 16th.)
As a result, the 21-year old’s role is expanding. He’s moved into the starting lineup in Kelly Olynyk’s absence, and even when the Jazz aren’t short-handed, there have been times when Jazz head coach Will Hardy has chosen to finish games with the young center. Statistically, the Jazz allow 109.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court; they allow 116.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench. He also shows off a pretty diverse set of finishes around the rim.
There are things he’s lacking, though. Well, it’s really just one skill: screening. Coming into this season, Kessler was an incredibly goofy screener.
“I don’t know if y’all have watched, but I used to do just a little bunny hop thing,” Kessler said.
We have watched.
The hop made Kessler’s screens incredibly tough to time for his guards. For Mike Conley especially, who relies on that pick-and-roll timing as much as any veteran in the NBA, working with Kessler in the pick-and-roll was nearly impossible: If Conley goes too soon, it’s an offensive foul as his defender runs into a jumping Kessler; if he goes too late, the play has no momentum and is far too easy to stop.
So Kessler worked with Conley and the Jazz’s coaching staff on creating a repeatable motion for Kessler’s screens, a simple one-two stop that is more reliable for Conley and everyone else on the team. It’s a work in progress, to be sure. Sometimes, Kessler executes it perfectly, other times, he falls back into old habits.
(Another goofy aspect of Kessler’s screening: he throws up a hand or a fist right as he’s about to set the screen. There’s no reason why — Kessler says it’s just “habitual, from, like, middle school. I have no clue. I can’t tell you. It’s just what I do. I don’t really think about it, and then I have to watch my film and of course, every time, I’m doing it. ... Maybe I’ll work on it in the offseason.” Everyone involved, though, prefers he work on his footwork first.)
How else can Walker Kessler improve?
Beyond the screening, the Jazz think there’s much more room to grow in Kessler’s game. In particular, some of the hope in drafting Kessler was that he might be able to make a 3-point shot eventually. Kessler shot 54 threes in college (making 11), but so far has shown it on the NBA floor only once.
But Hardy wants Kessler to postpone the shot’s introduction to the NBA.
“Think about if it was baseball: if you focused all your time on all your off-speed stuff and you never had a fastball ... Walker’s still working on his fastball right now, and he’s getting pretty good,” Hardy said. “But I don’t want him to get distracted by adding too much to his game right now, and lose focus on the things that he’s really still trying to shore up: his pick-and-roll defense, protecting the rim, and being a great screener. Because right now that’s how you can help us in these games and ultimately that’s going to be the backbone that his game is built on.”
If Kessler were to be able to add a jump shot more consistently, he could be Utah’s future version of Brook Lopez, the Defensive Player of the Year candidate who also stretches defenses with his consistent 3-point shooting. Lopez was a key part of Milwaukee’s championship run in 2021, and was a player Kessler cited as an inspiration for his own work coming into the league.
“Walker’s a great young player already,” Hardy continued. “There is a lot that can be added to his game. We’re just trying to manage his own expectation of when.”
Regardless, that fastball is heating up. Kessler’s 20-point, 20-rebound game in Minnesota this week made Kessler the first Jazz rookie ever to reach those figures, along with the first rookie in the NBA to since 2014. It was Kessler’s first ever time getting 21 rebounds: He’d never reached that sum in either collegiate or high school play.
And after, he went to Instagram with a message for those teams, including the Wolves, that passed on him: