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Let’s Have an Honest Conversation About Walker Kessler

Would the standout rookie have the same career trajectory he currently has if he was still in Minnesota? How do we evaluate opportunity cost retroactively? Let’s discuss.

When the game No Man’s Sky was first announced, it was lauded as a peek into the future. Boasting the extremes of procedural generation and eighteen quintillion planets to explore, a number too large to even imagine, the game was built around navigating said planets and surviving. That’s certainly not a new concept. Exploration games are old, going way back to the fittingly named text-based “Adventure” in 1979. The genre evolved to something more resembling what we know today in 1980’s “Mystery House,” which was a graphical masterpiece at the time but is now not much more than vectors on a pixelated screen. With about 40 years of history and many more milestone experiences to build on, August 6th, 2016 was a step into the world of the impossible.

Except, the game’s launch failed spectacularly. What No Man’s Sky’s developer Hello Games had failed to realize is that eighteen quintillion planets don’t matter when none of them are worth investing in. The game had nothing to keep players engaged and, as such, players had no reason to spend time playing. See, there needs to be something, anything to keep people pushing at an idea until something works out.

That is why I find it so baffling how people choose to contextualize the return of the Rudy Gobert trade, specifically in the inclusion of the seven-foot sasquatch, the white whale of Minnesota: Walker Kessler.

Minnesota Timberwolves Introduce Draft Picks Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Before Rudy Gobert was the center next to Karl Anthony-Towns, it was the newly drafted, perfectly coifed Walker Kessler. The huge difference there is Kessler cost the Timberwolves a late first. Gobert cost them at least five of those (depending on how you perform your math). I will not belabor the Gobert aspect of this all because, quite honestly, writing this is painful enough that torturing myself with a lego obsessed giant is a lot more fun than the alternative.

Kessler was supposed to be playing around 15 minutes a game, testing the limits of what pairing Towns with a traditional rim protector would look like. The big question mark comes with my assumption that the KAT injury still happens. I am not a doctor. I do not know anything about myofascial chains or tennis leg. Even the concept of a circadian rhythm is a theory beyond my comprehension. Towns’ real injury led to an expanded role for Naz Reid, even with Gobert available and prominent in the Timberwolves’ rotation. Does Karl missing time mean we enjoy Naz as a starter? The Wolves went 7-4 in the eleven games with Reid as the starter. Does that injury instead mean Naz Reid maintains his bench spark role while Kessler starts, something he did in forty games last year?

While all good questions, I don’t think we even get to that point. This past season, Minnesota had extreme point guard shortages. D’Angelo Russell went out sporadically, Jordan McLaughlin shared KAT’s injury report designation of “calf strain,” and Austin Rivers was just good enough to avoid getting cut during buyout season before disappearing to the bench to host a remarkably fun podcast. During that whole time, the Wolves had rookie Wendell Moore Jr. sitting there. At no point did they try to work him into the rotation, a decision that seemed even more insane at the moment after Moore’s promising first start than it does now after watching a less-than-stellar performance at NBA Summer League.

It’s easy to say that Moore being undeserving of playing time on a team in need of point guards says very little about Kessler, who demanded more playing time over lower level prospects in Damian Jones and Udoka Azubuike and eventually took over for Kelly Olynyk on a near-career year. However, we are all victims of the moment. Moore’s debut was exciting and ultimately just a flash in the pan. KAT’s initial fit with Gobert was dreadful and it would not be hyperbolic to say that the fit with Kessler would probably be similar. Comparing the two rookies is inane, but comparing the situation and opportunity cost for the Timberwolves is not.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

We only have one year of evidence to explore, but I’m not sure this front office believes in rookie-year contributors. The Grindstone, Leonard Miller, seems to have an outside shot of playing consistent minutes this year but with a rotation at the 4 and 5 of Towns, Gobert, Kyle Anderson, and Naz Reid, the shot seems slim to none without major injury setbacks. Josh Minott, after being redshirted outside of garbage time, is in a similar situation. Jaylen Clark will very likely not play due to injury after signing a two-way contract.

Again, Kessler very well could have asserted himself as a phenomenal young player manning the middle for the Wolves as he did for the Jazz. He just as well could have spent the year in Iowa while Minnesota missed the playoffs without the contributions of Gobert and the degradations of play for Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt that eventually resulted in their DNPs in the playoffs.

In that more-than-likely situation, what happens? Are the Wolves able to offer the same three-year, $42 million dollar deal after Reid experiences an even larger role or is brought off the bench behind an unheralded rookie? Is KAT really moved as the team rotates to a focus on the trio of Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, and Walker? Do the Wolves do what they did in fact end up doing this offseason and simply run it all back without the encouragement they gained from a competitive first-round matchup with the eventual champion Denver Nuggets, without McDaniels and Reid?

That’s another set of good questions we’ll never know the answer to. I believe Kessler would’ve been buried and the two big experiment would’ve been abandoned near immediately. With the cost just being a late first-rounder that could be converted into a backup center playing spot minutes, there’s no reason to keep pushing chips in with a losing hand.

Like Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. would have been if the Wolves had lost the classic “Game 82,” Kessler will continue to be the developmental story that never was for Minnesota. The Wolves faced similar questions when Jimmy Butler is brought up, questions of a Butler-Edwards duo. The difference is, while those questions are clickbait impossibilities (Butler would never be leading a team to the second-worst record in the league or the No. 1 pick), we saw Kessler holding up that disgusting number 31 Timberwolves jersey. For a short period of time, that was the reality. That roster existed in a way that other traded teams never did. That’s why so many Wolves fans can’t stand the conversation: it’s a real one worth having, and one that hurts to go through.

No Man’s Sky was a $500,000 investment that spectacularly face planted the second it breathed its first breath. If it had been a smaller budget game for a smaller budget studio that didn’t have connections directly to Sony, it very well could have gone out without a whimper. It would join the hundreds of over-hyped, under-achieving let downs that line the halls of Steam’s Summer Sale. And yet, instead of doing that, Hello Games doubled and tripled down. Update after update rolled out, gameplay improved, planets became less similar, and eventually, the game found a niche. It never reached the 250,000 concurrent player number it had reached early post-release, but it has settled into a respectable player base of around 8,000 regular players, which initially seemed like a long shot considering how hard they had to work for anyone to give them another chance.

In 2016, consolidators and game reviewers didn’t give No Man’s Sky any chance to recover from a lost launch, naming it the worst failure the industry had seen. Similar things have been said about the Gobert trade. I have no clue if the two big experiment can reverse course and become a real, lasting success, but it is still ongoing. Call it stubbornness or hope or sheer stupidity, but it’s still ongoing and it is always better to know than to live in nauseous uncertainty.