Film Room: The Kessler Effect
Walker Kessler already had a strong résumé for national Defensive Player of the Year. Then he had the most dominant game of the season vs. A&M.
C Walker Kessler (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
At one point during the hour-long College GameDay broadcast from Auburn on Saturday morning, the analysts tied college basketball to Super Bowl weekend with a game of comparisons.
When asked who the college basketball comparison was for Aaron Donald — the ultra-dominant three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and seven-time All-Pro defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams — Jay Bilas didn’t hesitate.
He said it was Walker Kessler.
At the top of the hour, Bilas made his transition from the GameDay desk in the corner of the Auburn Arena floor and over to the media table to call the Auburn-Texas A&M game.
Bilas already thought Kessler was the most impactful defensive player in the country, but he hadn’t even seen his best game yet.
With the eyes of ESPN and plenty more across the country on him, Kessler recorded a career-high 12 blocks in Auburn’s 75-58 win over Texas A&M. He was the anchor of a defense that allowed the Aggies to shoot just 27.1% from the field, which was the lowest by the Tigers in an SEC game since Feb. 1, 2012 against Georgia.
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Kessler’s block party against Texas A&M extended his dominance in several statistical categories and brought him even higher in others.
Let’s start with block percentage, which Kessler has had a firm lead on for most of the season. Block percentage is the percentage of opponents’ 2-point shots that are blocked by the player when he is on the floor. Kessler currently sits at 20.36%, which is 3.2% higher than the next-closest player — Western Kentucky’s 7-foot-5 Jamarion Sharp. (Against Texas A&M, Kessler had a game block percentage of 41.3%.)
Blocking shots at this rate is extremely rare. The nation’s leader in block percentage, per KenPom, hasn’t cracked 17% in a season since William Mosley did it for Northwestern State in the 2010-11 season. Alabama A&M’s Mickell Gladness was the last to finish a season at 20%, when he did it back in the 2006-07 season.
Kessler’s 12 blocks allowed him to move past Sharp for the Division I lead in both overall blocks (116) and blocks per game (4.6). Only 37 teams in the country have more blocks than Kessler has individually. That means Kessler currently has more blocks than 321 Division I teams, or — to put it another way — 89.7% of the sport.
Kessler also now has the Division I lead, per CBB Reference, in defensive box plus/minus at +8.0. Box plus/minus is a complex box score-based statistic that essentially estimates a player’s impact when he is on the floor, compared to the average player. It’s admittedly not as definitive for defense as it is for offense due to the smaller number of defensive box score stats, but it’s still a good guide to see who is making the most obvious impact on that end of the floor.
Elsewhere on the national leaderboards, Kessler is sixth in defensive rating (81.1) and seventh in defensive win shares (2.1). The two main players ahead of Kessler in both categories are Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe. Holmgren has the benefit of facing a lighter strength of schedule at Gonzaga, while Tshiebwe’s defensive numbers are based on his massive defensive rebounding totals — Kessler’s shot-blocking percentage is quadruple that of the Kentucky big man.
Those are a lot of numbers, with several of them involving complicated formulas, to show that Kessler is both a dominant presence for one of college basketball’s best defenses and is on pace to be the best shot-blocker the sport has seen in more than a decade.
So far this season, there have only been six Division I games in which a player had 10 or more blocks. Kessler is the only one who has multiple double-digit block games. He’s the only power-conference player in the country to hit 10-plus blocks, and he’s the only one to accomplish that feat against a power-conference opponent. And both of Kessler’s came in conference games as part of triple-doubles.