NBA

Auburn’s Pearl: Kessler Wolves draft pick is more than a rim protector

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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 frame and 256 pounds around the basket.

In Kessler’s only year with the Tigers, he averaged 4.6 blocks per game, but he didn’t win National Defensive Player of the Year honors from Naismith for that alone.

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“Where he grew the most was his own confidence in his ability to activate the guards and allow the guards to attack him,” Pearl said in a phone interview Friday. “He became more confident pressing the perimeter and pulling back and reaching the edge.

“I don’t think he surprised himself, but we just forced him to be more aggressive in his defense against the ball and he embraced it.”

This will be one of the biggest questions, if not the biggest, 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 try to isolate him in pick-and-roll defense? Wolves certainly think so, otherwise they wouldn’t have spent the No. 22 pick on him becoming the first draft pick of the Tim Connelly era.

Pearl doesn’t seem to think that will be a problem either.

“He can definitely switch and hold multiple positions,” Pearl said. “He can recover, and I think the thing I’ve always had to remind Walker is that he doesn’t need to play like he’s 7-1. That he’s faster, faster and a better athlete than [most think].”

Wolves are betting Kessler will find a way to co-exist long-term alongside center Karl-Anthony Towns and perhaps allow Wolves to play a more traditional drop coverage scheme to keep the edge.

Last season, Wolves used more aggressive pick-and-roll coverage where Towns jumped around the perimeter on the screens while his teammates backfilled and spun to the edge behind him.

It worked for Wolves, and Towns looked more comfortable in that pattern than he did playing drop cover, which forces the big man to head to the edge then a guard passes around a screen.

Kessler’s choice is also representative of Wolves chastising this idea that you have to get smaller and faster to win in the NBA. They will likely have towns for the foreseeable future and have invested significant draft capital in Kessler, although Connelly played down expectations that all Wolves picks, including Duke’s Wendell Moore at No. 26, are expected to contribute immediately.

“I think expecting picks to have an instant impact on a team that has great depth, that has really productive players, is probably unfair,” Connelly said after the draft. “I don’t think in the immediate future it will have a huge impact.”

On the offensive end, Kessler is more of a work in progress. He was effective around the rim but only shot 20% from three-pointers on 1.5 attempts per game. Pearl said Kessler was in good form, but just needed more time to have more confidence in his shot.

“I think he’s going to end up being a really good three-point perimeter shooter,” Pearl said. “You have to start taking them before you can learn how to make them. I allowed him, and he was okay with it. He didn’t shoot a big percentage, but I thought most of them were going when he took the hit.”

Pearl said Kessler has a good “ripping game” in which he can take defenders to the basket with an effective European step.

Kessler tends to be even on the field, Pearl said, unless 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’s tough on himself.”

Kessler was tough on himself after his last 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 wouldn’t have gotten there without him.”

Kessler had foul trouble early on and the Hurricanes attacked him effectively to the point that he was off the ground in the second half. He went 0 for 6 and scored two runs in just 13 minutes.

“I know if it had some sort of reset button, that would be the game it would have reset,” Pearl said. “But Miami was pretty good and that was an anomaly. He was always good all season long. Sometimes he was great. But he was always really good.”

If Wolves can get that from him at the NBA level, the pick will have been worth it.

  • Phillip Wheeler, 20, will join Wolves for the summer league after agreeing a one-year contract. The 6-9 forward played for the Piratas de Quebradillas in Puerto Rico and is part of the Puerto Rican national team.
  • Theo John, a former Champlin Park star, said on Twitter that he would join Wolves for the summer league. The 6-9 forward played four seasons at Marquette before playing last season for Duke.

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