Last week, Utah Jazz radio play-by-play man David Locke tweeted the following: “If you are starting a franchise tomorrow would you take Rudy Gobert or Walker Kessler?”
Among replies to the tweet, mostly from Jazz fans, this one stuck out: “Kessler. Defense seems to have a comparable ceiling but Kessler’s offensive game will far surpass Rudy’s.”
Despite the reality that any debate starts and ends with Gobert’s $200 million contract, I found this response interesting. Not only does it capture the general tone out of Salt Lake City (at least based on the replies to this one tweet), but it also begs the question: Can Kessler, a rookie, one day surpass what Gobert brought to the Jazz for a decade?
It’s an interesting (and fair) question. Kessler, the 21-year-old, 7-footer who was taken with the 22nd pick in June and thrown into the Gobert trade over the summer, has emerged as a shot-blocking force for the Jazz. Meanwhile, Gobert has become the avatar for Minnesota’s disappointing season. Needless to say, the vibes around both players are very, very different.
Kessler’s averages of 7.5 points, 70.6% shooting, 7.2 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 2.0 blocks in 20 minutes per game fit snugly into Utah’s feel-good season. According to The Athletic, Kessler and Lauri Markkanen have been deemed “untouchable” as the trade deadline approaches.
This is because Kessler is Utah’s best big-man defender.
At 7-foot-1, Kessler has already established himself as one of the league’s best shot blockers. Kessler is one of five centers this season to have blocked 90 or more shots, keeping company with Nic Claxton, Brook Lopez, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Myles Turner. Already, he has 15 games of three or more blocks. A bananas number. According to Dunks and Threes, Kessler is blocking 8.2% of the 2-pointers he contests. More bananas.
The Jazz rank 26th in defensive rating, allowing 115.2 points per 100 possessions. But in the minutes with Kessler on the floor, they allow just 113 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, a mark that would rank in the top 12.
If Kessler will ever reach the peak of Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who anchored a top defense for the Jazz for six-straight seasons, should not be the question. If Gobert retired today, he’d have a Hall of Fame case.
Part of the Kessler story is that he is not burdened by expectations and there’s no reason to heap those on him now. But there’s little doubt that Kessler will be among the league’s top rim protectors for years to come.
Eventually, the big test for Kessler will be the postseason. Will he encounter similar issues in the Western Conference playoffs that plagued Gobert for years? Will he be able to guard on the perimeter against the likes of Steph Curry, Luka Doncic and Ja Morant?
The Jazz try to avoid having Kessler switch onto ball-handlers and, when he does, he can get caught in limbo. The Jazz do a decent job of kicking Kessler out of those switch situations, but crafty opponents will quickly drag him into pick-and-rolls and fire off a shot before Utah’s defenders have a chance to recover.
That stuff is unavoidable, and what Kessler provides as a rim deterrent offsets these limitations. As the Jazz build out their roster, they’ll attempt to add better perimeter defenders that can chase players off screens, or opt to go small in certain matchups.
The Jazz couldn’t go small in the past in part because the team was built around Gobert. Taking your highly-paid centerpiece off the floor in high-stakes moments isn’t a good look. With Kessler on a rookie contract, the Jazz shouldn’t have that problem.
The other issue the Jazz ran into in past playoff series was that Gobert had no offensive game to speak of besides dunks and putbacks. He never developed a post game to take advantage of getting matched up against a smaller defender, nor did he ever really become a consistent threat to pass out of the short roll to open shooters.
Going back to the reply to Locke’s tweet, it’s unclear if Kessler’s offensive game “will far surpass Rudy’s,” but he’s shown flashes.
It took Gobert a few years to find his footing as a pick-and-roll big man in the NBA. Kessler, in a small sample, already looks the part.
The Jazz score 1.32 points per possession with Kessler as the roll man, a mark that ranks in the 75th percentile and equal (though on fewer possessions) to what Gobert had last season in Utah. It’s simple stuff. Kessler smoothly transitions from screen to roll and uses his length to get to the rim for a layup or dunk.
And while Gobert was never a natural passer, Kessler is a willing playmaker out of the short roll, even if it can be a little clunky.
But, like Gobert, an overwhelming amount of Kessler’s offense comes from dunks, layups and putbacks. If he’s going to surpass Gobert, he’ll have to learn to post-up smaller defenders when he has a mismatch near the basket.
On occasion, Kessler will experiment with a left-handed hook shot. He doesn’t convert at a high rate, but there might be something worth investing in here.
In terms of a jump shot, Kessler did attempt 54 3-pointers in college, although he made just 11 of them. (He has yet to attempt a 3-pointer in the NBA.) His sub-60% free throw rate in college and as a rookie don’t indicate that he’ll be much of a shooter any time soon.
These are the important next steps, even if years down the road, of Kessler’s development.
Going forward, the key for the Jazz will be not counting on Kessler to make such giant leaps. Even if Kessler does have more upside on offense than Gobert, that’s less important in today’s NBA, when teams are more likely to take their traditional big men off the floor altogether when they really need a basket.
Getting Kessler in the Gobert trade was clearly a big win for the Jazz, but the biggest win was the flexibility – in terms of on the court and future roster construction – that the trade provided.