Deep Dive: Walker Kessler And The Importance Of Space
Minnesota's polarizing first-rounder will need to find his niche in the pace-and-space big leagues to succeed.
Draft night is the night for overreactions. It’s the night for standing deep in the trenches you built in the name of your favorite player. It’s the night for screaming in joy or wailing in frustration. In the end, though, it’s the night for blindly trusting the front office, for better or worse.
When, after some shuffling of the chess pieces, the Timberwolves finally selected Walker Kessler with the 22nd pick, all of those emotions erupted around the Wolves fan base. Kessler stands at a bumbling 7-foot-1 and hasn’t exhibited the ability to put the ball on the deck or stroke deep shots. There is no freakish end-to-end speed or bouncy brilliance.
On the surface, he is a ponderous backup center who will struggle in the big leagues against some of the world’s most lithe athletes. He is, in theory, the very antithesis of the modern NBA.
Fortunately, the game isn’t played in theory. There is hope for Kessler. The more you scour the former Auburn Tiger’s film, the more it strikes you and strangles the worries out of you. Strangely enough, that hope arises from his ability to do things in space. To move and to shake. To act, in surprising ways, as someone who isn’t an enormous blob of limbs. He isn’t the aforementioned athlete or the shooter or the proverbial unicorn. There is a very real chance he does enough to survive NBA spacing, though, and doing that will allow him to shine in ways that perhaps aren’t as easily accessible from a once-over look.
Defending In Space
The overriding fear permeating through the Timberwolves fan base after Kessler’s selection was his ability to defend away from the rim. There is no doubting what his huge frame and fearsome shot-blocking instincts can do in the safe space around the cup — nobody has a higher block percentage than Kessler’s 18.8 percent since tracking started in 2008. He will block shots, it’s almost as if he was genetically mutated in some sort of lab to do so, but it’s in vogue for modern-day bigs to be able to move in space.In Minnesota’s defensive scheme, it’s an indispensable trait.
Without the trust of head coach Chris Finch and his staff to shift laterally above the free throw line extended area, Kessler will be severely limited. Sure, they will likely swivel into some drop coverage defense to give them more bandwidth as a defensive unit and Kessler could very well be the anchor of that change-up, but they had success with their aggressive high wall scheme last season.
They can’t stray too far from that goldmine. The further away from the rim Kessler can creep without being punished, the better the outcome will be for a Minnesota defense that thrives in the scrambling hunt.
Kessler isn’t Bam Adebayo harassing ball-handlers like a wing and he probably won’t be able to blitz high above the 3-point arc like Karl-Anthony Towns proved he could last season. But he isn’t the lurching oaf that his size may suggest, either. There is some actual side-to-side agility there and enough length and defensive nous to make defending away from the rim a true possibility.
The 20-year-old was primarily used in drop coverage at Auburn under Bruce Pearl, but it wasn’t a strict diet. Morsels of ‘shallow’ drop or even legitimate at-the-level defense were strewn throughout that diet, he thrived in them as much as he thrived in drop, and those are surely the ones that stood out to Finch and Minnesota’s front office throughout the draft process.
This possession is Minnesota Timberwolves defense. The exact same high wall pick-and-roll concept that helped them finish with the 12th-best defensive rating in the league last season.
Kessler pestering the ball-handler up at the level of the screen, Jabari Smith as the low-man rotating over to cover the rolling offensive big, Kessler recovering back to the paint and stifling the shot with his enormous length. He doesn’t get the block and he doesn’t do anything overly spectacular in terms of speed or athleticism, but if the cogs in the defensive machine are moving as one then he doesn’t need to.
Again, this isn’t the paint-dwelling behemoth that many may envision. This is giant gangly tentacles blocking the path of the player coming off the ball screen, it’s the low-man doing his job and, importantly, it’s Kessler using his size to get back under the rim for a box-out and defensive rebound. This is defending in space, the Timberwolves way.
Will Kessler be able to slide his feet with shifty guards? Probably not. Very few bigs in the league are able to shackle guards in that fashion. Will he be able to operate as a high wall deterrent play after play after play? It seems unlikely early in his career and he may never get to that point. But should he be shunted aside as a player who can’t do even the most basic feet-moving, one that will inevitably falter under the demands of Minnesota’s defensive ethos? Negative.
That mindset not only applies to pick-and-roll defense, but to actual one-on-one switches and closeouts as well. Like all teams, especially those with a monster in the paint, the Wolves will do their best to limit the amount of small-big switches they face, but with every passing year teams get more accustomed to hunting them and targeting the players that they deem targetable. They will hunt Kessler, and for him to truly break the ‘slow giant’ mold, he is going to have to handle those switches somewhat capably.
This is a true switch. A clear out and let him cook switch. A nightmare for bigs. The late ghost screen coming over does nothing to change the fact that Kessler is on an island and, for bigs like him, those islands can be cold and lonely places. However, because of his size and reach, this footspeed moving backward and laterally could be enough for him to hold his own. He only needs to get within a few feet to be able to impact or block the ensuing shot.
Kessler can cover ground quickly, far more quickly than he is perhaps being given credit for, and as long as he isn’t left grasping at air above the free throw line, he is going to trap ball-handlers on the box and smother them with his length.
If defenders are coming downhill at speed things are going to get a little hairier for the big man, but aside from the true speed demons of the league, this level of movement and rim-protection could comfortably keep him out of the aforementioned switch-hunting zone.
The same theory applies to players attacking Kessler’s front foot on closeouts. It’s going to work sometimes — he is enormous and no amount of scaled footspeed will match the league’s most fearsome first steps — but he isn’t a plodding slouch. Melding that with his length and seriously-impressive instincts at least give him a chance to recover. In the clip below, the closeout is cumbersome (one of the worst of all the film I watched) but he is able to not only recover back into help position, but clap the shot off the backboard.
The path to Kessler becoming an effective defender in space isn’t obstacle free. There will be potholes and perils. Even for all of his seam-splitting defensive acumen, he isn’t going to walk into the league as somebody who you can anchor an entire defense around. There is a path there, though, because of his surprising lateral quickness and his want-to, there is a path. Once he finds his feet, he just may run it.
When you think of the word ‘spacing’ you think of shooting. That’s how it is and there is merit behind that line of thought; nothing spaces the floor better than players who can stroke triples reliably. Walker Kessler isn’t a shooter. He is more comfortable than most 7-footers at spotting-up from deep, but the reality that he never converts his 20 percent (10-of-50) 3-point clip or rancid 59.6 percent free throw percentage into anything at the next level is one worth preparing for.
The Timberwolves will have dreams of churning sweet butter from that sour milk, but they’d also be under no illusions how rare it is for gangly leviathans to turn into legitimate shooting threats. That doesn’t mean he can’t operate in a spaced-floor environment like the one that Finch prefers. There has always been ways to use big-bigs and, despite them feeling more prehistoric than ever, that hasn’t changed.
Even compared to someone like Jarred Vanderbilt, Minnesota’s incumbent non-shooter, Kessler’s size, screening ability and overall rim-gravity make him a player who can add greater offensive value. The newest Timberwolf won’t be the one taking advantage of the space, but he still has the capacity to help create some.
There is serious value in this kind of vertical spacing. The immense suction that instinctively pulls defenders toward a rim-rumbling big of Kessler’s nature. Perhaps without even thinking about it, his presence alone draws the perimeter defenders closer to the cup to help and that leaves the shooter with enough time to get his shot off. He forces low-man help when low-man help was never required. He is huge and, in many ways, he is scary.
Whether it is on trailing rim-runs like the one above, transition opportunities where he is streaking down the middle of the floor like some sort of roving lighthouse, or even in halfcourt pick-and-roll sets, Kessler’s size will provide a perpetual vertical spacing threat. Alongside a big man like Karl-Anthony Towns who spaces the floor as well as anyone in the league, that skillset will be noticeably important.
Other times, Kessler is going to have to be the one taking advantage of spaced floors. He’s never going to have the impact on stretching a defense like Towns or any other sweet-shooter has, but when he isn’t creating vertical spacing it’s so easy to see how he can punish defenses that are already spaced-out.
There is some pep in that big ass step. More verve than usual from a big man coming out into an empty-side pick-and-roll. And, as is the case in the example above, when Kessler is operating in a spaced-floor situation and quick-pivoting out of a screen, he can be a serious, serious problem for a defense.
The Timberwolves would be really prudent to seek out as many of those empty pick-and-rolls with Kessler and Anthony Edwards as possible. Make them try to trap the explosive wing and stop a downhill flurry or make them try to contain the bursting big man. In two-on-two situations, they can’t do both. There are lobs and dunks and fouls and rim-pressure to be had.
In today’s NBA, the fact is that teams want to guard the 3-point line. They need to. Even for a likely non-shooter (at least early in his career) that fact plays into Kessler’s hands. If they want to hug up to their man, he is a monstrous screener who spins out of them quickly and rumbles into the open lane just as swiftly. If they want to take away that roll-man excellence then they risk giving up that vertical spacing and leaving shooters open.
It’s not going to work all the time. Kessler isn’t going to ever be a driving force for a high-powered offense. But that indecision that he causes in spurts will lead to points — points for his teammates and points for him. In the end, if the Wolves get one or two of the play you see below per game through that indecision, his first round selection will start quickly paying itself off.
The Timberwolves didn’t pick the kid with the highest potential in the draft. Maybe that was still a mistake. They didn’t get the one with the most mouth-watering tools. That still stings a little. They may have even reached a little for their guy. However, in Walker Kessler, they got a kid who can play — in almost any scenario and, undoubtedly, in the modern NBA.