Walker Kessler is a big man from Georgia who is entering the 2022 NBA Draft after two seasons in the NCAA. He was a consensus 5-star prospect coming out of high school and committed to the University of North Carolina. After struggling to find consistent minutes behind a crowded Tar Heels’ front court that featured Armando Bacot, Day’Ron Sharpe, and Garrison Brooks; Kessler transferred to the University of Auburn. To simply say he made the most of the new opportunity would be an understatement. In his sophomore campaign, Walker Kessler led the nation in total blocks, won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, was selected the to the All-SEC First Team, and won the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, awarded to the nation’s best defensive player.
Kessler is projected to be selected anywhere in the back half of the first round, placing the Denver Nuggets’ right in the range he is expected to be chosen. With the 21st overall selection in the 2022 NBA draft, Walker Kessler could bring much needed rim protection to the Nugget’s bench, but would it be wise to use a first round pick on a player whose ceiling in Denver would be a backup to Nikola Jokic?
Walker Kessler, Center, Auburn
Age: 20 (7/26/2001)
Career Per Game Statistics
Walker Kessler racked up 155 blocks in the 2021-22 season. To put this number into perspective, he single handedly had more more blocks than all but 13 NCAA basketball programs were able to accumulate as a team. Kessler also led the nation in defensive box plus/minus and block percentage at 19.1%. He measured in as the tallest player without shoes at the 2022 NBA draft combine and also tied for the second highest standing reach at 9 feet and 5 inches. Kessler utilized this length well and routinely made the opposition pay for attempting to score at the rim anytime he was in the vicinity.
He also showed flashes defending the perimeter and was very impressive playing drop coverage in the pick and roll. With solid mobility for his size, he showed some ability to switch onto smaller players and overwhelm them with length and size. Just when the opposition thought they’d have him beat off the dribble or created enough space to get off a jump shot, Kessler would recover so quickly that he would either alter or block their shot. The success he had at times defending the perimeter may not translate to the next level, but his effectiveness in drop pick and roll coverage likely will.
On offense, Kessler projects as a screening, rim-running center in the Association. His relatively lower skill level with the ball and inconsistent jump shot suggest he’d be best utilized in this role. This may sound negative, but Kessler can thrive in this role, just as he did when he stuck to it while at Auburn. Last season he converted an impressive 72.7% of his half court shot attempts at the rim. While as the roll man specifically, however, he reaches peak levels of efficiency with an unbelievable 94% on field goal attempts near the rim. Although many of these attempts are dunks, Kessler has also displayed solid touch around the basket on layups, hooks and floaters when he can’t slam it down.
Shot Selection/Jump Shooting
Walker Kessler went just 10/50 on three point shot attempts last year and 1/4 in his freshman season. Not only are the percentages concerning, but the total attempts are as well. Teams would back off and dare Kessler to take jump shots and he obliged far too often. I respect his confidence and desire to want make the defense pay for leaving him open, but he will likely need to clean up, or maybe even overhaul, his release before he becomes a viable pick and pop option at the next level. His 57.7% career free throw percentage only furthers the notion that Kessler is not a viable jump shooting threat as he enters the league next year.
The less glamorous side of Walker Kessler’s propensity for blocking shots is the negative plays that come with his aggressive mentality. Kessler is guilty of biting on shot fakes and failing to stay vertical in pursuit of blocks more than his fair share. This mentality also translates to how he plays the passing lanes and overcommits to cutting off driving angles at times. Additionally, he found himself in foul trouble far too often. A big part of why he only played 25.6 minutes per game this past season was from picking up too many fouls to stay on the court. While he does need to play with a bit more discipline, the associated energy and effort with this play style can still be a very positive addition to a bench unit.
Projected Draft Range: mid-to-late first round
Denver Stiffs Big Board: 51st overall
NBA Comparison: Jakob Poeltl/Mo Bamba
Walker Kessler may not fit the mold of a versatile big in the modern NBA, but his skillset is still valuable in today’s league. He’s still young with plenty of time to develop and round out his game. Even if he doesn’t improve much as a shooter and playmaker, or become an elite defender, Kessler feels like a very safe bet to have a long NBA career as an imposing interior force coming off the bench.
His ceiling might be somewhere between Kristaps Porzingis and Rudy Gobert and if teams selecting ahead of the Nuggets see enough of those players traits in him, Kessler won’t be available at 21st overall. On the other hand, he is someone that could just as easily slide as far as the second round due to his limitations.
If Denver’s goal with their first round pick this year is to acquire a player that they believe can help them win now, Kessler is a very solid option to fill the backup center spot. The Nuggets’ benches have seemed to preform better in recent history with a playmaking center and Kessler certainly isn’t that. They wouldn’t be able to run a similar offense while Jokic rests, but they would have an impactful close to the basket presence at both ends of the court.