Grading the Jazz: The many ways Walker Kessler won over coaches, teammates, fans during rookie season
A combination of talent, growth and personality earned the Jazz big man a winning grade
Editor’s note: Twelfth in a series evaluating and grading every player that was on the Jazz’s final 2022-23 roster.
Sometimes it is best to look at a player’s performance in a vacuum and sometimes it’s just impossible to ignore context and history and the future.
With Walker Kessler, I don’t know how you look at his rookie year without also taking into consideration what the Utah Jazz gave up and got in return in the trade that landed Kessler. Rudy Gobert will forever be tied to Kessler’s career story and before the 2022-23 season began, that seemed daunting. But, Kessler’s performance this season has all but squashed all doubt and worry and it was a huge part of why the Jazz look like the absolute winners of the blockbuster trade from last summer.
Walker Kessler — Grade: A+
On Monday, Kessler was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team, he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and has the stats to back up the accolades.
Kessler finished the season averaging 9.2 points on 72% shooting from the field to go with 8.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. His 2.3 blocks per game were higher than any other rookie this season and ranked fourth across the entire NBA.
After the All-Star break, Kessler averaged a double-double of 12.4 points on 73.6% shooting to go with 10.8 rebounds as well as 3.3 blocks per game, which led the NBA. Let’s not forget, he was just the No. 22 overall pick in the 2022 draft.
Everything that I’ve said is already enough to warrant an A grade for the season. But then you get into the nuance and the growth and the 21-year-old’s personality and that’s where he gets the “+.”
First, I want to address what I said up top. When the Jazz traded away Gobert, they got a haul of assets, plus players, which included Kessler. The future draft picks were and remain the grand prize of the trade, but Kessler is a close second.
When you give up a player that is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, there are of course going to be concerns about how much rim protection and what kind of defensive anchor you’re going to have leading your team into the future. Keeping in mind that this was just Kessler’s rookie season and all conventional wisdom says that he is just going to continue to improve, those worries quickly dissipate.
At 21, Kessler looks like the kind of center that can be that defensive anchor for many years to come, with room to grow. On the other side, Gobert struggled with the Minnesota Timberwolves and they were quickly eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs. With Gobert turning 31 on June 26, it seems that the Jazz might have moved away from their stars at just the right time and got the perfect pieces in return.
Now to Kessler’s improvement over the course of the 2022-23 season.
It’s easy to forget that Kessler didn’t begin the season as a starter for the Jazz. He was told pretty early on by coach Will Hardy that he had a future as a starter and as a closer, but that he needed to prove that he could do the things that really matter in those situations — that included well-set and timed screens, spacial awareness, physicality and playing without fear.
It didn’t take Kessler long to hear what Hardy was saying, to watch film and see the spots where he needed to improve, and to make the necessary adjustments in his game. In December, Kessler got a few starts, and on Jan. 10, he became a mainstay in the starting lineup.
Even more than that, there were times Kessler would make a mistake during a play or a defensive possession and he would either talk with the veteran players or Hardy, or watch film at halftime, and then correct that mistake during the course of a single game. Kessler is an incredibly quick study and he is not afraid of criticism and that makes the future look very bright.
Defensively, Kessler showed that he has what it takes to have staying power in the NBA. In four games he finished with seven blocks and he had at least four blocks in 14 games. He became just the eighth rookie in NBA history to record seven or more blocks in at least four games in one season and he is the first to do it since Tim Duncan in 1997-98.
That’s not to say that Kessler can’t improve on defense. There were times when he really struggled against smaller, craftier, smarter guards (ahem, Damian Lillard). But the fact that there is still room for him to be better on defense is really exciting.
Offensively there is still room for a ton of improvement and I don’t think that we’ve really seen what kind of a threat Kessler can be yet. There were flashes, but I think that when he starts to play more instinctually that the offensive side of things will open up even more. There’s part of the offensive side that was hampered a little by the revolving door of ballhandlers that were running things for the Jazz this season.
On top of everything, Kessler is a warm, kind, self-deprecating, sweet and hilarious person, who very quickly endeared himself to the Jazz fanbase.
From the 22nd draft pick who arrived via trade, it’s hard to imagine a better rookie outing.