The Utah Jazz are accustomed to having elite rim protectors from Mark Eaton to Rudy Gobert and now to Walker Kessler.
Rookies are rarely good defensive players. It takes time for players to learn the NBA game, especially the defensive side of it. Walker Kessler was a rare exception. In his rookie season, Kessler ranked fourth in the NBA in total blocks and blocks per game. His rim protection numbers were off the chart. He ranked 13th overall in Defensive RAPTOR last year and first among rookies. He had the fourth-best defensive EPM among players 21 years and younger. Starting his career at such a high level defensively is an excellent sign for Kessler’s future.
Very legitimate chance Walker Kessler wins a Defensive Player of the Year Award in his NBA career. His impact metrics are going to be stratospheric (they already are)— NBA University (@NBA_University) June 15, 2023
99th percentile rim points saved, 99th rim dFG% against vs expected (-13.1%), blocks 35.5% of shots he contests.
Kessler’s defensive dominance was a massive factor in Utah’s surprising win totals last season. He began the year as the backup center, but his play quickly forced Coach Will Hardy to move him into the starting lineup. Kessler earned the honors of the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team, a spot on the Rising Stars roster, and the NBA’s February Rookie of the Month.
Despite his impressive Rookie season, Kessler still has room to grow. Most defensive stars don’t learn how to impact the game until they’ve played for a few years. Kessler has a head start. His second season should show massive improvement on both ends of the court.
Could he actually win DPOY?
History is against Walker Kessler if he’s hoping for the honors of Defensive Player of the Year in his second season. Only one player in NBA history has won the DPOY in their first two years: Alvin Robertson in 1986. Robertson, along with Dwight Howard, Kawhi Leonard, and Jaren Jackson Jr., are the only players to win the DPOY at age 23. Nobody has won it at age 22 or younger, which will be Walker Kessler’s age next season. Historically, it’s a tall order.
While his young age may be an obstacle, the league’s current state may leave an opening for a player like Kessler. There is not currently a dominant defender winning the award year after year. Two of the last four winners have played fewer than 64 games in the season they won. Each of the last four winners has been a different player. There is an opening now for a young dominant rim protector to claim the defensive throne.
Kessler has opened the offseason with the 11th-best odds to win the award, according to our friends over at DraftKings. Of course, betting odds aren’t meant to predict the winner, but they can give a good idea of the general consensus. The betting sites have placed Jaren Jackson Jr. as the favorite to repeat his win from last season. If the Memphis Grizzlies are able to have another great regular season, Jackson will have to be in that conversation. However, if Kessler improves in his second season, his defensive numbers could outclass the competition.