After trading back in the draft for picks 22 and 29, fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves seemed pleased with new team President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly showing signs of aggression within the draft night-trade market. But after selecting Auburn big man Walker Kessler, the optimism quickly faded.
Several draft experts projected Kessler to land in Minnesota in the days leading up to the draft. Some fan reactions were positive. Others… not so much.
Needless to say, the Walker Kessler selection has been a bit controversial amongst supporters of the Pack.
But is the 7-footer actually a good fit for the Wolves?
Like so many others, I was much higher on Minnesota drafting a versatile 3-and-D forward such as Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell. (Seriously, how did he fall all the way to 41?!). But after watching Kessler’s fill, it’s easy to see Connelly’s vision.
After giving up countless points in the paint during their six-game playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, it was apparent that the Wolves were in dire need of some additional size and rim protection. Many assumed Minnesota’s front office would get a shot-blocking big in free agency.
Connely and Co. had other plans.
An upgrade at the backup center position was a must for the Wolves this offseason. Naz Reid was virtually played off the floor during playoffs because he couldn’t defend the paint. Kessler, who ranked second in the NCAA in blocks per game, immediately brings some much-needed defense down low. However, he struggles as a versatile defender due to his lack of speed laterally. Yet, Kessler could be the perfect backup big for a team eager to maintain its upward trajectory.
Even if he only logs between 8-12 minutes a night, Kessler should provide the Wolves with two things: a drop scheme center and a legit pick-and-roll partner for D’Angelo Russell.
With a towering 7’1”, 256 lbs. frame, Walker Kessler is the definition of an NBA big. Kessler has a 7’4” wingspan, which helped him record 4.6 blocks at Auburn. He also excels in a drop coverage defensive scheme, which Timberwolves fans remember as a disastrous experience during the David Vanterpool era. But the Wolves need to be able to effectively run the drop scheme if they want to compete every night.
After Minnesota’s Game 2 loss against Memphis, I advocated that they re-implement the drop scheme if they wanted a chance to make it past the Grizzlies. We repeatedly witnessed Ja Morant attack Minnesota’s high-wall PnR coverage, only to dump off a bounce pass to Brandon Clarke for an easy, uncontested finish at the rim. With Kessler as a viable option at center for Chris Finch to run the drop, the team becomes a much more versatile defensive unit. But it’s not just Kessler’s defense that provides the Timberwolves with value.
It’s no secret that the Wolves front office has been shopping Russell since his poor performance in the playoffs. Opposing front offices are aware and understand that any trade for Russell wouldn’t provide his current team with any real value. Known as a shoot-first guard, DLo has always showcased the ability to be a wizard with the ball in his hands, making tough passes that wow the crowd on a nightly basis. Russell has always excelled as the ball handler in the PnR. But he hasn’t had an adequate partner to run with during his time in Minnesota.
Although he’s one of the most prolific scoring bigs in the league, Karl-Anthony Towns prefers to pop out towards the perimeter to showcase his skills as the best shooting big of all time. Towns only rolled to the basket on 2.8 possessions, 21st in the NBA amongst other roll men in points per game. Jarred Vanderbilt and Naz Reid are exceptional at rolling towards the rim, but they are undersized and often struggle finishing over bigger defenders. Kessler is renowned as one of college basketball’s best shot-blockers this season, but he also proved to be one of the best roll men. Given his impeccable size, Kessler was able to catch passes off of his brick wall screens where most defenders couldn’t reach. That allowed him to convert 94% of his roll man finishes at the rim.
Last season, Russell only averaged 6.6 PnR possessions. In his All-Star season with the Brooklyn Nets, Russell’s nightly average was 11.4. Russell is still on Minnesota’s roster post-draft, and he’ll likely start the season in Minnesota. Paired with Kessler, Russell should see an upwards tick in PnR possessions, as he typically ran the second-unit offense this season. Even if the Wolves’ relationship with DLo is irremediable, having him play alongside a player like Kessler should at least help remedy his decreased value on the trade market.
In his first draft, Connelly has undoubtedly made a first impression on the franchise’s fanbase. In the past, he has proven to be exceptional when it comes to drafting NBA-ready talent (*cough* Nikola Jokic *cough*). Sure, drafting a player like Kessler, who projects to start his career as a high-level backup, with a first-rounder is a bit underwhelming. But he’s who Minnesota’s front office found worthy of the 22nd selection.
Kessler is one of the best shot-blockers in the history of college basketball. He thrives as the low man in a drop defensive coverage, allowing teams to play different defensive schemes to their opponents guessing. And let’s not forget the impact Kessler could potentially have on resurrecting Russell’s value. Kessler will serve as a competent roll man for DLo in the sort of pick-and-roll situations he thrives in.
The pick received some backlash, and we’ll never know what a Jaden McDaniels-Liddell wing pairing will look like. But if anything, fans should be happy that Connelly had conviction on Kessler, even if he’s unpopular among part of the fanbase.