Auburn coach Bruce Pearl is adamant that Walker Kessler is more than just a rim protector and shot blocker, that Kessler isn’t just valuable defensively because of what he can do with his 7-foot-1, 256-pound frame around the basket.
During Kessler’s lone year with the Tigers, he averaged 4.6 blocks per game, but he didn’t garner Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year honors on that alone.
“Where he grew the most was his own confidence in his ability to switch on guards and allowed guards to attack him,” Pearl said in a phone interview Friday. “He became more confident pressing up on the perimeter and retreating and getting to the rim.
“I don’t think he surprised himself, but we just forced him to be more aggressive in his ball screen defense and he embraced it.”
That will be one of, if not the biggest questions for Kessler as he embarks on his NBA career. Will his defensive prowess translate to the NBA, and can he keep up with teams that will try to isolate him in pick-and-roll defense? The Wolves certainly think so, or else they would not have spent the No. 22 selection to get him as the first draft pick in the Tim Connelly era.
Pearl also doesn’t seem to think that will be a problem.
“He definitely can switch and guard multiple positions,” Pearl said. “He can recover, and I think the thing I always had to remind Walker of was he didn’t need to play like he was 7-1. That he’s faster, quicker and he’s a better athlete than [most think].”
The Wolves are betting that Kessler will find a way to co-exist long term alongside center Karl-Anthony Towns and perhaps allow the Wolves to play a more traditional drop coverage scheme to guard the rim.
Last season the Wolves employed a more aggressive pick-and-roll coverage where Towns would jump out on the perimeter on screens while teammates would backfill and rotate to the rim behind him.
It worked for the Wolves, and Towns looked more comfortable in that scheme than he did playing drop coverage, which requires the big man to head to the rim as a guard comes around a screen.
Kessler’s pick is also representative of the Wolves rebuking that idea that you have to get smaller and quicker to win in the NBA. They will likely have Towns for the foreseeable future and have invested significant draft capital in Kessler, even if Connelly downplayed expectations that all the Wolves’ picks, which included Duke’s Wendell Moore at No. 26, would be expected to contribute immediately.
“I think to expect the picks — to come make an instant impact on a team that has great depth, that has really productive players as is, is probably unfair,” Connelly said after the draft. “I don’t think on the immediate future it will have a huge impact.”
One the offensive end, Kessler is more of a work in progress. He was effective around the rim but shot just 20% from three-point range on 1.5 attempts per game. Pearl said Kessler had good form, but just needs more time to get more confidence in his shot.
“I think he’s going to wind up being a really good perimeter three-point shooter,” Pearl said. “You have to start taking them before you can learn to make them. I allowed him, and he was willing. He didn’t shoot a great percentage, but I thought most of them were going in when he took the shot.”
Pearl said Kessler has a good “rip game” in which he can take defenders to the basket with an effective Euro step.
Kessler tends to be even keel on the court, Pearl said, except if the Tigers lose. Then the emotion comes out.
“He’s a bad loser and he wears it on his sleeve,” Pearl said. “All he cares about is winning and he is hard on himself.”
Kessler was hard on himself after his final game with the Tigers, when they lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Miami.
“It was probably one of the worst games of his career and he took it personally,” Pearl said. “But we would’ve never got there without him.”
Kessler got in early foul trouble and the Hurricanes attacked him effectively to the point he was off the floor in the second half. He went 0-for-6 and had two points in just 13 minutes.
“I know that if he had any kind of a reset button, that would’ve been the game he would reset,” Pearl said. “But Miami was pretty good and that was an anomaly. He was consistently good all season long. Sometimes he was great. But he was consistently really good.”
If the Wolves can get that out of him at the NBA level, the pick will have been worth it.
- Phillip Wheeler, 20, will join the Wolves for the summer league after agreeing to one-year deal. The 6-9 forward played for the Piratas de Quebradillas in Puerto Rico and is on the Puerto Rican national team.
- Theo John, a former Champlin Park standout, said on Twitter he would join the Wolves for the summer league. The 6-9 forward played four seasons at Marquette before playing last season for Duke.
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