Film Room: How Walker Kessler set his season high in dunks against Kentucky
Auburn's 7-foot-1 center has been one of the most automatic offensive weapons in the SEC. Against Kentucky, he was at his very best at the rim.
Maybe it started with the bucket hat.
In his first three games at Auburn, Walker Kessler scored just 13 points. Then he went to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis with his new teammates. He scored 14 in a marathon overtime loss to UConn, then 13 in a win over a stingy Loyola Chicago.
During Auburn’s 15-game winning streak, the bucket hatter has become the bucket getter. He’s scored double-digit points 10 times. Four of the other five games were marked by foul trouble, and the other featured an early exit due to injury. When Kessler plays more than 24 minutes, he’s a big-time scoring weapon for what is about to become the nation’s No. 1 team.
Although Kessler has the ability to shoot from the outside, he isn’t getting his points from range. (Kessler is just 4-27 from 3-point territory this season, but Auburn’s staff is still, smartly, giving him somewhat of a green light to shoot when it’s wide-open.)
No, Kessler is a machine right now because of what he’s doing at the rim.
According to KenPom, Kessler is No. 9 in all of college basketball in 2-point field goal percentage (73.5%). Of the eight players ahead of him, only one — Marquette’s Oso Ighodaro — plays in a major conference.
Kessler is also holding firm as the nation’s best rim protector with a block percentage of 19.33% on the season. He is one of only two players in Division I who rank inside the top 10 in both 2-point field goal percentage and block percentage. The second is 7-foot-5 Western Kentucky center Jamarion Sharp, who is No. 3 in block percentage and No. 10 in 2-point field goal percentage — behind Kessler in both.
It’s two-way paint dominance, and it’s only gotten better in SEC play. Kessler is shooting a remarkable 82.2% on 2-point field goals against conference opponents. That ranks second in the SEC behind Mississippi State’s Cameron Matthews, who has attempted 31 fewer shots from inside the arc in league play.
Kessler has an effective field goal percentage of 75.5% and a true shooting percentage of 77.6% in SEC play this season. Those both rank No. 1 in the conference.
Why is Kessler the most automatic scorer in the league right now? Because the bulk of his offense is coming on the easiest shots on the floor — dunks.
According to CBB Analytics, Kessler is shooting a dominant 91.2% at the rim in SEC play. That’s 25.8% higher than the Division I average. He’s only missed three of his 34 shots in SEC play. Twenty-six of those 31 makes are dunks, which also means that 76.3% of his 2-point field goals have come on the most efficient look in the game.
Kessler set a new season-high for dunks (seven) at the perfect time, when Auburn knocked off Kentucky on Saturday to grab a two-game lead in the early SEC title race. Even against a tough and physical Kentucky defense, Kessler was unstoppable.
“They only count as 2 points, but you obviously have to execute some things to make those things happen,” Bruce Pearl said. “You have to have great screening, great passers, and the best guy in the country that can finish it in the air. There aren't many guys that can do what he can do — and it's not just because he's 7 feet tall. He's special in the air, offensively and defensively. Great hands, and he's not afraid.”
The strategy Auburn used with Kessler wasn’t a new one. The Tigers utilized the high screen-and-roll with Kessler over and over to pull off another double-digit comeback win, the one at Saint Louis, last month.
But Pearl and his staff threw some more wrinkles at John Calipari and his Wildcats in order to get Kessler open for dunks.