What Auburn basketball is getting in UNC transfer center Walker Kessler

The Tigers went into the portal and landed its second-best recruit ever — a 7-foot-1 big man with insane potential on both ends of the floor.

Tipton Edits (Instagram, via Walker Kessler’s story)

In the 2020 recruiting class, Auburn basketball — unsurprisingly — went for all the top names out of the state of Georgia.

The Tigers landed the No. 2 and No. 3 players in the state, Sharife Cooper and JT Thor. Cooper is headed to the NBA Draft after a brief but memorable run as Auburn’s point guard. Thor has entered the draft but could come back to the team next season.

Meanwhile, the No. 1 recruit who got away is on his way to the Plains.

Walker Kessler signed with North Carolina out of high school. He was a McDonald’s All-American and a top-five center in his class. Some believed that Auburn finished in second place for his services. His family has a vacation home at nearby Lake Martin, and Kessler had been recruited by Bruce Pearl’s staff for years.

The 7-foot-1 Woodward Academy product averaged less than nine minutes per game as a true freshman last season. His talent was obvious, but he was on a roster that had a ton of frontcourt depth. He played just 22% of the possible minutes for the Tar Heels, well behind Auburn native Garrison Brooks, fellow freshman Day’ron Sharpe and sophomore Armando Bacot in the rotation.

Kessler entered the transfer portal March 22. Auburn immediately jumped back into the mix for him. Gonzaga was said to be the leader for a long time. North Carolina, who replaced the retiring Roy Williams with top assistant Hubert Davis, went with a full-court press of a recruiting pitch to get him to stay in Chapel Hill.

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On Monday afternoon, Kessler announced on his Instagram page that he would be transferring to Auburn.

When Cooper signed with Auburn, he became the highest-rated recruit in the program’s modern history. That spot was held for mere months, as Atlanta-area native Jabari Smith — a potential one-and-done talent at No. 5 overall in the 2021 class — signed with the program.

In terms of recruiting rankings, the 247Sports Composite has Kessler behind Smith and ahead of Cooper in the overall standings. Kessler gives Auburn its fourth-ever consensus 5-star prospect, with three of them arriving within the last two cycles.

How will that translate on the floor, though? Auburn fans will be thrilled about Kessler’s commitment, but skeptics inside and outside of the fan base might point to his smaller role at North Carolina as a freshman.

Let me break the journalistic fourth wall here and address you, dear reader, directly as Justin Ferguson of The Auburn Observer.

Last November, before the start of basketball season, I wrote that Jaylin Williams was poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign because of the high efficiency numbers he posted as a reserve in 2019-20. The advanced stats told a much deeper story than the per-game averages that are always cited. In starter’s minutes last season, Williams was the season-long team MVP.

I don’t write this next sentence lightly:

According to the numbers, Walker Kessler would have been Auburn’s most efficient player on both ends of the floor last season. (And he most likely would have played a lot more for Pearl than he did under Williams.)

Let’s start with some percentages:

  • Kessler’s effective field goal percentage was 58.3% last season. That would have ranked fourth on Auburn’s team in 2021-22, behind Dylan Cardwell, Chris Moore and Williams. His true shooting percentage of 58.0% would have been fourth, behind the same trio.

  • His offensive rebounding rate of 18.4% would have been significantly better than any other Tiger, as now-departed reserve Javon Franklin was at 13.2%. The same goes for his defensive rebounding rate — 21.0% beats Franklin’s 19.7%. The total rebounding percentage gap between Kessler and Franklin was 3.5%.

  • Kessler’s block percentage was 10.7%, which was higher than Franklin at 8.8%. Almost all of his numbers in ACC play are close to his overall percentages, but it’s worth noting that his block percentage was better against conference foes (11.7%). It helps to have a four-block game versus Florida State, a three-block game against Duke and an eight-block game against Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament.

To best compare outputs among players with differing times on the floor, let’s look at per-100 possession stats. This is better than time-based stats like per-40 minutes, because it takes pace completely out of the equation. (Think of these like per-play numbers compared to per-game numbers in football. The former tells the whole story.)

  • Points per 100 possessions: 27.9 (second compared to Auburn in 2020-21, behind Cooper at 33.2)

  • Rebounds per 100 possessions: 20.6 (first by a huge margin, with Cardwell at 13.1)

  • Blocks per 100 possessions: 5.5 (first, with Cardwell at 4.8 and Stretch Akingbola at 4.6)

  • Offensive rating: 118.3 (first, with Justin Powell at 115.6)

  • Defensive rating: 88.5 (first by a huge margin, with Franklin at 100.2)

And, finally, here are a few more advanced numbers, including a lone 40-minute stat only for win shares purposes.

  • Player Efficiency Rating (PER): 31.0 (first by a huge margin, with Cooper at 22.9)

  • Win Shares per 40 Minutes: .232 (first, with Cooper at .174)

  • Box Plus/Minus: 10.9 (first by a huge margin, with Williams at 6.6)

These stats aren’t just inflated due to small sample size, either. (Walk-ons, for example, usually post absurd numbers in these categories.) As friend of the newsletter Josh Vitale tweeted Monday, Kessler came up big in the two games in which he got to play starter-quality minutes for North Carolina.

If Kessler would have put up those same numbers in an Auburn uniform last season, he would have been one of the Tigers’ most efficient scorers, by far their best rebounder and their best rim protector. (Plus, they came in the ACC, a conference that was neck-and-neck with the SEC in quality last season.)

Kessler is a 7-foot-1 playmaker who fully utilizes every ounce of his length and height. He is a vacuum for rebounds on both ends of the floor. He can affect most shots at the rim and has the ability to cover a lot of ground for a block or a steal in an instant. He has a variety of post moves that allow him to cash in from close range and uses his size to create problems for defenders on midrange looks.

When Kessler signs with Auburn, he will be the Tigers’ tallest player since the 7-foot-2 Trayvon Reed in the 2014-15 season. Auburn hasn’t had a single 7-footer since then, with Austin Wiley and Cardwell both coming close at 6-foot-11.

Needless to say, Kessler adds a different offensive dimension to Auburn’s frontcourt.

According to Hoop-Math, nearly 69% of Kessler’s shots came at the rim last season, which only trails Cardwell and Akingbola on the Tigers’ roster. Keep in mind that Kessler averaged 19.7 shot attempts per 100 possession last season, while Cardwell and Akingbola were tied at 8.1.

Kessler is a talented post scorer with an effective drop step and some nice touch around the rim. He hit hook shots with regularity in high school and carried that over into ACC play. With his height, he can get up and over smaller defenders for thunderous dunks.

One of Kessler’s more intriguing shot selection numbers is the percentage of shots at the rim that were assisted — just 37.5%. Williams was at 69.2% last season, with Cardwell not far behind at 65.9%.

What’s the reason for the gap? It has a lot to do with Kessler’s rate of getting and converting putback chances. North Carolina led all of college basketball in offensive rebounding rate at 40.9%, which has long been a staple of that program’s identity. Kessler fit right into that.

Almost 34% of Kessler’s shots at the rim were putbacks. The next-closest Tiger on the current roster is Akingbola at 24.4%. Nearly a third of his makes were putbacks, which would be the highest on Auburn’s roster by a significant margin. Kessler is tenacious on the offensive glass and finds ways to create extra chances, either for his teammates or for himself.

A smaller reason why Kessler’s rate of shots at the rim weren’t heavily reliant on assists: He has some modern stretch-five capabilities, and he isn’t afraid to put the ball on the deck and get to the basket on his own.

It’ll be interesting to see how much Kessler tries to bomb 3-pointers under Pearl. He only shot four a season ago, banking in his lone make. (It’s worth noting that only 11 teams in Division I basketball had a lower rate of 3-point attempts than North Carolina. Part of Davis’ rumored pitch to keep Kessler at UNC was the big man being able to stretch the floor more as a sophomore.) In high school, Kessler hit 35% from deep and attempted about three triples per contest.

Like fellow transfers Zep Jasper and Wendell Green Jr., Kessler shot a higher rate of midrange jumpers than any other Tiger a season ago. His field goal percentage of 45.8% on those looks would have only trailed Moore on the Auburn roster. His length can make challenging that shot difficult, especially when he utilizes a fadeaway.

Free-throw shooting will be something he’ll look to improve at Auburn, as he shot just 59.3% from the stripe last season. In high school, he was a career 67% free-throw shooter.

One of the more underrated aspects of Kessler’s game is his passing. He takes advantage of his height and attacks different angles with his feeds.

In Carolina’s high-low action, Kessler made heads-up plays to attack open space. Whenever opponents would attack him with double teams, he would quickly find his teammate for easier looks.

Kessler isn’t the most athletic big man around, but he moves well when running the floor on fast-break opportunities. He smartly fill lanes and makes himself available for rim-running chances.

As a 5-star prospect, Kessler was known more for his offensive game than his defense. But at North Carolina, he showed that he could be a major difference-maker on that end of the floor, too.

Kessler is a smart, instinctive defender. His plus-sized frame means he doesn’t have to jump much to affect or even block shots. On the ball, he can stay patient, wait for the opportunity, and stifle the attempt. Off the ball, he’s a weapon as a help defender at the rim.

Sometimes, his ability to cover ground quickly allowed him to get double blocks with relative ease.

When opponents try to take him away from the rim and put him on the perimeter, he uses his length to get into passing lanes and create quickfire opportunities in transition.

And when Kessler gets switched onto a guard — something that might happen a decent amount at Auburn — he makes sure that nothing comes easy on drives to the basket. He’s always in reach.

Kessler is a monster transfer addition who has the size, skill set and overall talent level that Auburn hasn’t had in quite some time. Although it came in limited minutes, he’s been battle-tested at a powerhouse program that made the NCAA Tournament.

The Georgia native should be able to plug right into Pearl’s fast-paced system and provide some of the traditional benefits of an offensively crafty, rim-protecting big man. Dividing the frontcourt minutes with Smith and Kessler coming into the picture — especially if Thor decides to return — is the definition of “a good problem to have.”

Even without Cooper, Auburn is on track to field arguably its most talented roster ever next season. Kessler should be a major part of the Tigers’ plans right away and should become a crowd favorite rather quickly.

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