Did Walker Kessler just have the best NBA rookie season in Auburn history?
Kessler became the third former Tiger to be named first-team All-Rookie. And a dive into the stats puts him in the company of legends.
C Walker Kessler (Auburn Athletics)
This time last year, a lot of the pre-NBA Draft attention for Auburn basketball was focused on Jabari Smith.
The National Freshman of the Year was a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft and felt like a lock to be the Tigers’ highest draft selection of all-time. Smith was viewed as a rare talent — a 6-foot-10 weapon who could do all the big man things while also being an exceptional jump-shooter.
And, on draft night, Smith surprisingly “dropped” to No. 3 in the draft to the Houston Rockets, as the Orlando Magic and the Oklahoma City Thunder went with Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren, respectively.
Meanwhile, later in the first round, Walker Kessler was going to have his own dramatic introduction to the NBA. The National Defensive Player of the Year was originally drafted at No. 22 overall by the Memphis Grizzlies, who traded him and TyTy Washington to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the No. 19 pick, Jake LaRavia. (LaRavia played in 35 games for the Grizzlies last season, averaging 3 points and 1.8 rebounds per game.)
Two weeks after draft night, Kessler was traded again — this time to the Utah Jazz. He was one of nine assets involved in a blockbuster move for three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. The Jazz went into full rebuild mode under new management, later trading multi-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
As a late-first round pick, Kessler had a chance to crack Utah’s rotation, especially with Gobert now in Minnesota. But no one expected what would happen next, outside for a few true believers back in Auburn and Kessler himself.
“Honestly, I thought it was possible because I knew what I could do,” Kessler said recently. “… I just didn't know if the opportunities would be given.”
A year after reigniting his basketball career with an SEC title at Auburn, Kessler was named to the NBA’s first-team All-Rookie squad on Monday. This came on the heels of Kessler finishing third in NBA Rookie of the Year voting.
Kessler became only the third Auburn player to be a first-team All-Rookie pick, joining the legendary Charles Barkley and Chuck Person.
(Smith, meanwhile, was a second-teamer, becoming the eighth overall All-Rookie selection from the Tigers — joining Chris Morris, Wesley Person, current Auburn staffer Marquis Daniels and Isaac Okoro.)
Kessler was a revelation in Salt Lake City, starting nearly half of the Jazz’s games and putting up fantastic numbers. He averaged 9.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game — and he averaged a double-double in games in which he started. Kessler was the Western Conference Rookie of the Month in February and posted a 31-point game in March.
Kessler was the only one to get any first-place votes for Rookie of the Year besides Banchero, who averaged 20 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. And, again, there were 20 other players picked between Banchero and Kessler.
To put Kessler’s rookie season in context, consider this: Only 16 players have ever recorded 600 points, 600 rebounds and 150 blocks in their first NBA season.
If you sort that list of 16 players by PER — player efficiency rating, a go-to metric for overall impact — Kessler ranks No. 5. The four ahead of him are all Hall of Famers: David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Chris Webber. And five of the next six after him are also Hall of Famers: Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, Ralph Sampson, Paul Gasol and Dikembe Mutombo.
KesslerMania was, indeed, running wild.
A campaign like that begs the question: Did Walker Kessler just have the best NBA rookie season in Auburn history? For today’s edition of the Observer, let’s find out.
Here are the 12 best NBA rookie seasons from former Auburn players, divided into four tiers. And, spoiler alert, it’ll all come down to a great — and very tough — debate on who had the most instant impact in the league.
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