Walker Kessler noted he spent about two days in Minnesota after he was acquired by the Timberwolves in a draft-day trade with Memphis. The center essentially arrived in the Twin Cities, did his introductory press conference, then packed up his stuff and headed West to Utah as part of the package Minnesota sent to the Jazz in the Rudy Gobert acquisition.
Six months later, the 21-year-old rookie played the role of the dominant interior center, controlling all aspects of the game at Target Center.
With Gobert out with a groin injury after playing just six minutes in Monday’s matinee, Kessler dominated the contest to the tune of 20 points and 21 rebounds in Utah’s 126-125 win over the Wolves.
He played a key role in a fourth frame in which Utah scored 39 points — going 15 for 18 from the field and grabbing the offensive rebound on two of those misses.
Still, Minnesota managed to have a shot to win the game at the buzzer. Anthony Edwards — who scored 25 points in the second half — drove and kicked to a wide open Jaden McDaniels, who couldn’t hit the potential game-winning corner triple at the horn.
“Finchy drew up a great play for me to catch it and have space. I had space. I beat (my guy) going right and I saw Jaden wide open in the corner. He shoots those, he makes those shots. I see him work on them all day in practice. If I had another chance to throw it to him, I’d throw it to him again,” Edwards said. “I went over and told him like, ‘Bruh, the next time, if they do the same thing, I’m throwing it again.’ He’ll be ready next time. He’ll make the next one.”
Kyle Anderson logged a triple double for Minnesota, finishing with 13 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. But it wasn’t enough to overcome Kessler’s impact.
Kessler, the No. 22 overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft, went 9 for 13 from the field while adding four assists and two blocked shots. Already one of the game’s most efficient bigs in his first professional season, the 7-foot-1 force continues to grow and develop at a rapid rate in Utah.
“Walker is a shining star for us right now, and one I don’t think a lot of people expect to come in and have an impact as early as he’s having an impact,” Jazz veteran point guard Mike Conley said. “So right now it’s working out, and we’re happy to have him.”
Conley was the first player to approach Jazz coach Will Hardy in training camp and inform the coach “that kid is going to be good.” Conley noted that Kessler — a shot-blocking phenom at Auburn — was rejecting shots few others could reach. Kessler would make three or four plays in open runs that would cause the Jazz coaching staff to pause.
The defense, Hardy noted, comes more naturally to Kessler. But the offense doesn’t appear to be far behind. Kessler caught the ball a number of times on the roll Monday against Minnesota’s high-wall defense and either scored or calmly kicked to open shooters. Other bigs have done that to the Wolves — but they’re usually high-level veterans.
“He’s got good feet and good hands. So he’s able to, No. 1, catch the ball, and No. 2, catch the ball on balance,” Hardy said. “So your eyes can see what they need to see and your brain can tell you what it needs to tell you, but if you can’t physically do the first part, which is catch the ball comfortably and pivot to see the defense, it’s really hard.”
Hardy said the Jazz are fortunate that Kessler has great instincts and clearly received quality coaching prior to arriving in Utah. That allows the Jazz to continue to push the envelope onto higher-level things with the big, installing more nuanced concepts and ideas that he can execute.
“He knows that I’m going to continue to stay on him,” Hardy said. “I’ve demanded a lot from Walker, because I really think that he has so much to give.”
All of that is great for Utah (23-24), and only naturally generates thoughts of what could have been for Minnesota (22-23). The Wolves paid a king’s ransom — including four future first round picks — for Gobert in the offseason, and Kessler, a lesser-mentioned part of the trade, looks ready to be a similar force for Utah at a young age on a great contract.
His win-shares per 48 minutes number currently exceeds the likes of Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo and, yes, Gobert. No one is saying that means he’s that caliber of player yet, but he sure seems to be on his way to achieving special things in the league.
“The sky is the limit. Honestly, people don’t even know, he can shoot the ball really well, too. He hasn’t done it yet, because it’s not his role for us, but he can stretch out to the three, he can do all of that,” Conley said. “Just knowing that he’s got that in his package and his bag of tricks and unleashing him step by step and when he gets confidence and the team changes around him, it’s going to be fun for him. He can be as good as he wants to be, he’s just got to continue to work, which I know he will, and stay healthy.”
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