The 2022 NBA Draft has come and gone, and there have been mixed reactions over the moves made by the Minnesota Timberwolves. They were part of multiple trades that were nearly impossible to track because the NBA is weird like that, but they still ended up walking away with four new players. The biggest name, and the most divisive, of the group was Auburn center Walker Kessler.
Draft reactions are always impulsive, short-sighted, and significantly skewed by the vast differences in each evaluator’s preferences. We have no idea how these prospects are going to turn out until at least three years into their career, which is typically around the time we either start seeing significant strides or stagnation. One of my favorite things about draft evaluation is when I’m wrong on a guy and they vastly outperform where I had them ranked. It gives me an opportunity to learn, gives all of you fodder to laugh at me, and it means we’re gifted with more brilliant basketball, which is always a good thing.
When the Kessler pick was announced, it’s fair to say that I was underwhelmed. Not because I think Kessler is a bad player by any means, but more so because I didn’t like the value at that spot and the other options still on the board. Oof, I felt that aggressive eye roll you just gave at the word “value” from here, and I get it. If you really like a guy, take him.
So, instead of living purely off singular highlight clips that show whatever supports the current narrative, let’s dive into who Kessler actually is as a player.
The 7’1” 256-pound Auburn sophomore center won the 2022 Naismith Defensive Player. Kessler didn’t earn his accolades by being a switchable defender, but instead by being one of the most dominant rim protectors in college basketball history as he averaged 4.6 blocks per game (second in the country). To further accentuate the absurdity of his shot blocking, Kessler’s block rate of 18.8 is tied for the highest in college basketball dating back to 2008, per Barttorvik whose database goes back to 2008.
Where Kessler excelled as a rim protector was mainly in drop coverage. His massive frame and 7’4.25” wingspan ate up plenty of space, and his positioning/timing was generally on point. The drop coverage scheme may give Timberwolves’ fans some PTSD, but every team in the league needs to have the capabilities to play it for at least some stretches of games, and Kessler should fill that need almost immediately.
Here, Kessler starts the play by sinking to the rim to ensure the off-ball cutter doesn’t have a free lane before reengaging with the pick-and-roll. As the ball-handler comes off the screen, Kessler’s teammate struggles to get through the screen, so Kessler holds his ground for a prolonged moment. He is a step late at disengaging and recovering to his man, but as the pass is made, Kessler does a great job of flowing with it and using his length for the block.
This time, Kessler’s teammate gets aggressively crossed over as the ball-handler creates space to attack. As the ball-handler gets downhill, Kessler shows his active feet and hips that allow him to usher the ball-handler to the restricted area. From here, Kessler shows off his patience, waits for the ball-handler to panic, and effortlessly blocks the shot.
Kessler has also shown the occasional promise of holding his own on the perimeter. Here, Tari Eason (one of the best slashers in the country) gets Kessler on an island. Eason gets downhill, lowers his shoulder, and moves Kessler (a somewhat concerning trend for someone Kessler’s size). However, during the drive, Kessler showed impressive footwork and hip mobility as he reacted to the dribble moves. This agility allowed him to stay on balance, so that once he absorbed the contact he wasn’t completely eliminated from the play. Kessler quickly recovers and turns away the shot.
Flashes like these make it exciting to think about what Walker Kessler could continue to grow into. Unfortunately, there are some really concerning habits to his game. Being that size comes with natural physical limitations that are no fault of his own. He can’t switch and move like a 6’9” guy can, so I’m not going to kill him for it. What is important to point out, though, is the inconsistency in which he compensates for his physical limitations.
Kessler’s peers Mark Williams and Christian Koloko are similar sizes, but they move extraordinarily better on the perimeter. I know Kessler has flashes of showing and recovering and playing at the level, but unfortunately, that’s all they are. They’re flashes. Too frequently, Kessler’s defensive stance makes him a liability on the perimeter. He is often upright in his stance, making him slow to react, and he defends with a narrow base, which doesn’t allow him to fully use his length to disrupt drives. Quicker opponents tend to turn the corner on him pretty easily because his strides are too contained within his shoulders. Additionally, Kessler’s inconsistent pick-and-roll positioning tends to give ball-handlers a clear lane because his stance is too open as a preemptive compensation for his inconsistent footwork. I’m not saying Kessler should be a switchable defender on the perimeter because that’s incredibly unrealistic. However, his inconsistent footwork, erratic positioning, and slow feet make me hesitant that he can play anything other than drop coverage or stick with more agile stretch big men.
Another troubling trend is how jumpy Kessler can be. Kessler is obviously a talented rim protector because you don’t have the highest block rate since 2008 without talent. However, I am concerned that those numbers may be inflated by how much Kessler hunts blocks. He is easy to get off the ground with simple fakes, and his determination to block the shot, instead of simply affecting it, frequently leads to a foul. Even when he doesn’t foul, by leaving the ground for just a split second, Kessler affords opponents to quickly reposition for either a pass to a now unmarked cutter, finish at the rim, or score on an offensive putback.
Little things like this may seem nitpicky, but they add up quickly. Timberwolves fans saw how devastating high foul rates can be. Raw block numbers aren’t always the best indicator of a player’s rim protection abilities. Just go review Hassan Whiteside’s career and perception. I’m not ready to put Kessler in that camp yet by any means, but there are concerning statistical blips besides the impressive block numbers.
For starters, opponents shot 49.9% at the rim when Kessler was on the floor, but this number rose to only 51.9% when he was off. Both of these are extraordinary numbers, but the 2% differential raises some questions as to how much Kessler had to do with that. The obvious counter argument is that his backup was just also that good. Without context, though, this number means nothing, so let’s see how a few of his peers compared. Christian Koloko’s differential was 9.5% (49.9% vs 59.4%), and E.J. Liddell’s was 7.8% (55.3% vs 63.1%).
One of the more underappreciated aspects of rim protection is shot deterrence at the rim. This doesn’t get as much shine because it doesn’t show up in the box score, but it is hugely important. When Kessler was on the floor, opponents took 40% of their shots at the rim. Similarly, 31.3% and 35% with Koloko and Liddell on the floor respectively.
A lot goes into these numbers that are out of these individual player’s control. Teammates, opponents, and context play a huge role in them, so please do not take these as the be-all-end-all. What is clear, though, is that Kessler is an extremely talented shot blocker who should help improve the Timberwolves’ rim protection and defensive rebounding early in his career. He likely won’t have the same defensive versatility we see from the elite defensive centers, but he will provide a different change of pace that the Timberwolves were sorely missing last season.
The main appeal of Kessler is his defense, but there are some intriguing offensive tools to work with as well. In the long run, Kessler may develop into a more versatile offensive player, but right now, the primary attraction is his rim running.
This season, Kessler scored 1.829 points per possession (PPP) when he rolled to the basket out of the pick-and-roll (99th percentile), per Synergy. Kessler has tremendous length, great hands, and is relatively unaffected by traffic. He has even shown the occasional ability to catch it out of the short roll and finish with at the rim after taking a dribble or avoiding defensive rotations.
I know these aren’t the most outlandish finishes, but it is a skill that the Timberwolves haven’t had in ages. Simply having a guy to throw the ball up to at the rim makes life much easier. It also forces defenses to change their pick-and-roll coverages as now they have to be mindful of the lob attempts instead of just focusing on the ball-handler and shovel passes.
Kessler was one of the most effective at-rim scorers in the country this season as he scored 1.515 PPP at the rim in non-post-up situations (97th percentile). Besides being an effective roller, Kessler also found success as a cutter, scoring 1.456 PPP (90th percentile). Kessler does a great job of finding open pockets that are created off of his teammate’s scoring gravity. He ducks in from the dunker spot, collapses to the rim from the perimeter, and is an excellent play finisher.
Last season, the Timberwolves found themselves in excellent positions with one of their big men cutting in a similar fashion, but they struggled with consistent scoring. Kessler should improve that as he catches nearly everything thrown at him and provides the vertical spacing that no one else on the roster does.
Kessler was also effective when he ran in transition with others as he scored 1.444 PPP (95th percentile) and on offensive put backs where he scored 1.149 PPP (58th percentile).
Other than at-rim play finishing, Kessler’s offense is pretty limited. Even though he was known more as a stretch big in high school, that has yet to translate for him to higher levels of competition. The dream is that he develops a reliable outside jumper, but the indicators aren’t encouraging. Kessler has a prolonged catapult-esque release that takes a long time to get off. He shot just 20% from three, 59.6% from the line, and 31.6% on long twos. The results are troubling, but they also suggest that Kessler doesn’t have much touch to work with. He also scored just 0.586 PPP (10th percentile) on all jump shots, 0.667 PPP (13th percentile) on shots off the catch, and 0.615 PPP (20th percentile) on pick-and-pop attempts. The only promising indicator for Kessler’s shot is that he wants to be a shooter. Maybe in time he gets there, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Additionally, Kessler really struggled when posting up where he scored just 0.737 PPP (33rd percentile) and had a turnover rate of 21.1%. Kessler likely won’t be posting up much, if at all, so this shouldn’t be a huge concern. However, him showing an improved sense of ball security in the post is a must.
Finally, Kessler was highly erratic as a passer. Most of his assists came on handoffs or the same set play they ran where two teammates would set a baseline screen for each other, and Kessler would make the pass from the top of the key based on whoever was open. Kessler also showed the occasional ability to flare the ball to the corners from the free throw line when his momentum was immediately stopped out of the short roll. However, when Kessler put the ball on the floor or had his momentum going towards the rim, it frequently ended in a turnover. He would start to play with blinders, miss passes to cutters, and commit reckless charges. Even when passing from a stationary position, his passes were often lazy, forced, and telegraphed.
To be clear, that’s perfectly fine. Not everyone needs to be a shooter or great passer or able to create their own shot. Sure, it would help, but Kessler’s ability to be a high-level play finisher at the rim is something this team lacked. Kessler should thrive when teams collapse on the drives of Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns. Even players like Jaden McDaniels showed an improvement with their playmaking after attacking closeouts. Now, the Timberwolves have a more reliable option to finish these at-rim attempts.
What a ridiculous section to have in a rookie preview article. Obviously, there is no verdict because Kessler hasn’t played a second of NBA basketball. We won’t be able to give an honest verdict for a few years at the earliest.
Kessler wouldn’t have been my pick at 22 because I think there were players on the board who provided more versatility for the Timberwolves. However, that doesn’t mean I hate the fit or am rooting against him. There are some concerning bad habits that he must clean up on both ends of the floor, but Kessler brings something new to this team. He will help with their rim protection and defensive rebounding, while also providing vertical spacing and reliable at-rim finishing. These aren’t necessarily the sexiest traits, but they make teams better, especially in the regular season. Kessler will be matchup dependent in the playoffs, and I question his upside as a potential starter down the road, but what he excels at right now is what Minnesota struggled with last season.