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Walker Kessler should be the leading Rookie of the Year candidate

Kessler is the most impactful rookie in the class and it’s not really even that close

NBA: Utah Jazz at Minnesota Timberwolves Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Yeah. We’re gonna do this again.

Five seasons after we all went through the whole song and dance of promoting Donovan Mitchell, who was always a longshot to win NBA Rookie of the Year over alleged rookie Ben Simmons, I’m back to make the case for Utah Jazz rookie center Walker Kessler to not only be in the conversation for ROY, but that he should be given the award (at least as far as it can be given after half a season).

The most recent “Rookie Ladder,” published on, slated Kessler at No. 5 — his highest ranking this year and a big jump from his previous ranking at No. 8 (about where he’s been hovering since finding his way on to the ranking). Ahead of Kessler, in order from first to fourth, are Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic), Benedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers), Jalen Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder), and Jaden Ivey (Detroit Pistons).

These rankings are what most would NBA fans would put together with minor variations. Banchero is the clear frontrunner, what with him averaging north of 20 points per game, 6.5 rebounds, nearly four assists and all. If Banchero didn’t win ROY he’d be the only rookie in the last 19 seasons to average 20-plus points per game and NOT win the award…aside from Donovan Mitchell.

Banchero’s case is basically rock-solid. Averaging 20 points as a rookie has typically punched a one-way ticket to the ROY Club. And to be honest that’s what will likely occur this year. Voters are easily wooed by a stat line such as Banchero’s what with the 20 points, 6 rebounds and nearly 4 assists per game. He’s a natural (and deserving) choice.

The only thing wrong with that fact is that it’s wrong. Kessler is and has been far and away the best rookie to step on the court. No, he doesn’t have the mind-blowing stats (save for having the first rookie 20/20 game since 2014 and the first seven-block game since 2018) but his impact is nonetheless vastly greater than any other rookie in this class. To prove that point, we’ll need to examine some more advanced stats than the simply points/rebounds/assists triple slash.

Below are a couple of tables with data from four catch-all metrics — FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, Basketball Index’s LEBRON, Sports Reference’s Box Plus/Minus and NBA Math’s Total Points Added. Those included are any rookies that have logged at least 600 minutes this season, which amounts to 17 players.

This first table is a bit of a wall of numbers, but it’s the raw data that feeds into the second table.

Catch-All Metric Rookie Numbers

Walker Kessler Jazz 3.6 1.77 2.3 44.13
Tari Eason Rockets 1.4 -0.42 -1.0 -19.75
Keegan Murray Kings -0.8 -1.39 -0.9 -23.88
Dyson Daniels Pelicans 0.3 -1.29 -1.7 -26.20
Andrew Nembhard Pacers -0.7 -2.11 -2.7 -66.90
AJ Griffin Hawks -0.8 -1.46 0.3 3.75
Bennedict Mathurin Pacers -1.7 -1.6 -3.5 -100.26
Paolo Banchero Magic -2 0.3 -0.6 -16.27
Jalen Duren Pistons -1.7 -1.14 -1.3 -28.24
Christian Koloko Raptors -2.5 -0.48 -4.4 -55.60
Jeremy Sochan Spurs -3.7 -2.05 -4.4 -95.83
David Roddy Grizzlies -4.4 -2.85 -3.7 -58.39
Jalen Williams Thunder -3.7 -2.03 -1.5 -37.67
Jabari Smith Jr. Rockets -4.7 -1.58 -3.9 -105.56
Shaedon Sharpe Trail Blazers -6.2 -3.43 -4.3 -75.87
Malaki Branham Spurs -8.2 -3.53 -5.7 -74.67
Jaden Ivey Pistons -5.2 -2.78 -3.6 -99.72

Here’s a slightly easier to digest version of the above table where it’s just the ranks of each player in all of these stats along with an average ranking column.

Catch-All Metric Rookie Ranks

Walker Kessler Jazz 1.0 1 1 1 1
Tari Eason Rockets 3.5 2 3 5 4
AJ Griffin Hawks 4.3 T-5 8 2 2
Paolo Banchero Magic 4.3 9 2 3 3
Keegan Murray Kings 5.3 T-5 7 4 5
Dyson Daniels Pelicans 5.8 3 6 8 6
Jalen Duren Pistons 6.3 T-7 5 6 7
Andrew Nembhard Pacers 9.3 4 13 9 11
Jalen Williams Thunder 9.3 T-11 11 7 8
Christian Koloko Raptors 9.5 10 4 T-15 9
Bennedict Mathurin Pacers 10.8 T-7 10 10 16
David Roddy Grizzlies 12.5 13 15 12 10
Jeremy Sochan Spurs 13.0 T-11 12 T-15 14
Jabari Smith Jr. Rockets 13.3 14 9 13 17
Jaden Ivey Pistons 13.8 15 14 11 15
Shaedon Sharpe Trail Blazers 14.8 16 16 14 13
Malaki Branham Spurs 15.8 17 17 17 12

So of these 17 players Walker Kessler is not only the top-ranked rookie in every one of these but he’s sometimes first by wide margins. For instance, if you look at TPA, which is NBA Math’s “Total Points Added” metric, the gap between Kessler and No. 2 (AJ Griffin) is roughly the same gap between No. 2 and the players at 7th and 8th.

These numbers should make a compelling case. Will they? Probably not. Kessler will need to up his traditional averages to get any consideration for being awarded as the top rookie of this class.

Right now Kessler’s averages are not very mind-boggling. He’s currently posting averages of 7.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. The two blocks per game in about 20 minutes played per game stands out but that won’t earn him much. How much higher can Kessler up these averages? The last month-and-a-half can offer some insight into that.

Since the start of December (that isn’t the cleanest cut-off but it’s close enough), Kessler has seen an increase in minutes, going from about 15 to just under 24 per game in his last 23 appearances. In his last six games (all starts), Kessler is averaging 28.9 minutes.

Kessler’s stats since December are a more impressive 9.1 points, 9.1 rebounds per game and a slightly higher 2.3 blocks per game. A major factor in those higher numbers is that all 12 of Kessler’s starts this season have come in that span. In those starts, Kessler’s averaged 10.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks.

If Kessler is able to up his season-long numbers to averaging a double-double with around 2.5 blocks per game, his ROY case becomes a little more arguable to the traditional voter.