Walker Kessler might seem like a very happy-go-lucky, easygoing guy away from the court, but when he’s on the court, he’s a perfectionist.
The Utah Jazz rookie center watches film religiously and when he makes mistakes he’s really hard on himself. Head coach Will Hardy jokes that every time Kessler talks to him, he’s apologizing for something.
“Walker is somebody that myself and the rest of the staff are constantly encouraging to just sort of let it rip. He’s obviously incredibly talented, he works very hard at improving, but he’s a very conscientious kid.” — Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy on Walker Kessler
On Sunday night, for the second time this season (both times post All-Star break) the Jazz’s first offensive possession was a designed play to get Kessler open from 3-point range. The first time this happened Kessler nailed a corner 3. This time, he missed a top of the arc 3, and although the plays can seem a little gimmicky — and Hardy certainly doesn’t want Kessler to think he’s got a green light throughout the game from deep — there is a little bit of method to the madness.
“Walker is somebody that myself and the rest of the staff are constantly encouraging to just sort of let it rip,” Hardy said. “He’s obviously incredibly talented, he works very hard at improving, but he’s a very conscientious kid.”
Kessler is always worried about what impact he’s having, whether that’s good or bad. He doesn’t want to make a bad decision and potentially be part of the reason why the Jazz don’t win. Or even on a smaller scale, he doesn’t want to be a part of a broken play or a turnover, or any other miscue.
He tries to get out of his own way, and listen to the encouragement of the coaching staff. He hears them say that basketball is an imperfect game and that he’s never going to be able to do everything absolutely right and to a T for 48 minutes — but, he wants to try.
For Hardy, it’s an incredible luxury to have such a skilled rookie who wants so badly to impact winning and learn everything he can and will do anything that’s asked of him. At the same time though, Hardy wants Kessler to learn to feel the game out and play with a little bit of freedom.
“He wants to do the right thing all the time,” Hardy said. “There’s 80% of that that is fantastic. Like, he wants to follow the game plan, he wants to do everything that we asked him to do. But there’s part of the game that you just have to let go and let it rip — fly around a little bit, don’t be afraid to make some mistakes.”
When that sentiment was relayed to Kessler by reporters, he joked that he would start just letting loose on the court and have the perfect scapegoat.
“Coach would be like, ‘What happened? What is that?’ And I’d just say, ‘Well the reporters told me you said ‘let it rip,’” Kessler said through laughs.
Even though Kessler jokes about it, Hardy knows it’s just not in Kessler’s makeup to do anything too outlandish.
“His most let-it-rip moments would still be in a realm of team-first. That’s just his personality,” Hardy said. “His natural state is never going to let him go to a place of like ruining the game. So, we’re just trying to encourage him to continue to be aggressive on both ends of the floor.”
So if Kessler see’s a mismatch that he likes or he is having some success on a post-up, sees an opening for a back cut, or any other thing, the Jazz staff want him to feel confident in taking some liberties within the game.
“I’m a guy that wants to win more than anything and I’ve never been someone that is like, ‘Oh I’m not getting enough shots, let me go get mine,’” Kessler said.
He’s open to taking more chances, but also believes that feeling out that part of the game will come with time.
“I just want to reiterate like, I’m so, so grateful. I know a lot of guys that get drafted a little later, they’ll feel some type of way. But I am so happy I got picked where I did and then got traded. Everything happens for a reason in my eyes. God was looking after me and I’m in the perfect spot.” — Walker Kessler
It’s easy to forget that Kessler, as talented and skilled and capable as he is, is a 21-year-old rookie. He’s got plenty of time to find a little bit of freedom in his game and learn to take some risks.
You might not see Kessler become a pick-and-pop big on a regular basis anytime soon. You might not see him calling for the ball on the post. You probably won’t see him dominating offensively in a way that is outside of the Jazz’s system.
But in time, you might see flashes of him trying to be more assertive, because Kessler truly believes in Hardy, the Jazz, and that he’s going to become the best version of himself in a Jazz uniform. So if Hardy says ‘let it rip,’ Kessler is going to try to make it happen.
“Maybe I’ll start trying to do a little bit,” he said with a shrug. “I just want to reiterate like, I’m so, so grateful. I know a lot of guys that get drafted a little later, they’ll feel some type of way. But I am so happy I got picked where I did and then got traded. Everything happens for a reason in my eyes. God was looking after me and I’m in the perfect spot.”