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Kessler eager to fill Gobert's role with Jazz, face Jabari Smith

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Walker Kessler eager to fill Rudy Gobert's role with Jazz, face Jabari Smith in NBA

By Tom Green | tgreen@al.com

5-7 minutes

Walker Kessler was on his third NBA team before he even got to step foot on an NBA court.

After being initially selected by the Memphis Grizzlies on draft night, Kessler was dealt to the Minnesota Timberwolves that same night. Two weeks later, he was part of the Timberwolves’ package to the Utah Jazz in the trade that brought three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to the Twin Cities.

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Now the reigning national college Defensive Player of the Year is settling into his new home in Salt Lake City, preparing for his rookie year in the NBA, and eager for the opportunity to work his way into a similar role as the one Gobert maintained for the Jazz for the better part of the last decade.

Those are large shoes to fill, even for a 7-foot-1 big man with Kessler’s defensive prowess.

“I think he’s got size 22 (shoes) or something like that,” Kessler joked Friday while back in Auburn for the first time since May. “But you know — nah, I don’t feel a lot of pressure. I understand that I’m pretty confident in who I am as a player. I think that, obviously, Rudy Gobert is an NBA All-Star, three-time Defensive Player (of the Year). They’re confident in me, and that’s all I want.”

Kessler blossomed into a top-tier two-way player during his one season at Auburn after spending his freshman year at North Carolina. He averaged 11.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per game last season, shooting 60.8 percent from the field—including 70.2 percent inside the arc—and led the nation block percentage (19.1 percent), defensive box plus/minus (8.0) and total blocked shots (155). The former five-star prospect also tied for the national lead in blocks per game, ranked eighth in defensive win shares (2.7) and third among all Division I players in defensive rating (83.0).

Along with taking home national DPOY honors, he was also the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and an All-American while helping to lead Auburn to an SEC regular-season title and No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now, he’s preparing for the next phase of his basketball journey, which—following an eventful couple of weeks after last month’s draft—will begin in Salt Lake City.

“You know, they (the Jazz) were just excited,” Kessler said of the trade that brought him to Utah. “Obviously, getting rid of Rudy Gobert, they felt that I could, you know, not necessarily replace Rudy Gobert but fit into that kind of role, grow into my own kind of player while playing that defensive role.”

Kessler is looking forward to playing in front of the notoriously rowdy fans in Utah and pondered how it will compare to the “unbelievable fans” he experienced at Neville Arena last season. While he’s anticipating the start of his NBA career, he’s also excited about the first time he’ll get to square off against one of his former teammates — Jabari Smith, who was selected third overall by the Houston Rockets.

“Oh, that’s going to be fun,” Kessler said, wide-eyed. “That’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to that. I said in the green room (on draft night in Brooklyn), they asked me who I was looking forward to dunking on, and I said Jabari; Jabari said me, so.”

The two haven’t gone head-to-head in a game since Kessler’s senior year of high school at Woodward Academy, when his team faced off with Smith’s Sandy Creek team in an epic quarterfinal matchup in the Georgia state playoffs.

As for whether Smith — the reigning national Freshman of the Year and Auburn’s second-ever consensus All-American — can dunk on Kessler, the 7-foot-1 big man shared his own thoughts on the matter following a long pause.

“I mean — no, but he’s going to try, for sure, so I got to be ready for that,” Kessler said.

Regardless of who will get the best of who when the former teammates first meet at the NBA level, Kessler knows Smith will have something to prove—not just in that matchup, but throughout his rookie season after being passed over as the No. 1 overall pick. Smith was widely projected to go first overall to Orlando leading into the draft, but the Magic instead shocked many by selecting Duke’s Paolo Banchero. The Oklahoma City Thunder, as expected, followed by drafting Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren at No. 2 overall, leaving Smith available for Houston to take with the third pick.

Smith has acknowledged that the drop, however brief, added a chip to his shoulder, while Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said on draft night that the Magic “poked the bear” by passing on the 6-foot-10 sharpshooter.

“We’ve talked a lot (since draft night),” Kessler said of Smith. “…Jabari’s an already extremely motivated person, regardless if he was going one, two, three or 15th, so for him, he’s going to come out with a killer attitude no matter what the circumstance is. But he’s extremely thankful and extremely grateful being in that position at all. So, understanding that, to be that kind of humble person and to be grateful, but also to be hungry regardless of the situation, I mean, it’s why he’s one of the best players.”

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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