T-wolves welcome rookie Kessler’s defense, size and upside

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Walker Kessler will bring a 7-foot-1 presence and prolific shot-blocking ability to Minnesota, a welcome complement in the post to star Karl-Anthony Towns even if his playing time is limited during his debut NBA season.

The Timberwolves didn’t just draft him to patrol the paint and guard the pick-and-roll. He has upside as a scorer, too.

“High school year, I didn’t know what defense was. I was just a stretch big, skilled big, offensive player. That’s all I did,” Kessler said Tuesday as the Timberwolves introduced him and fellow draft picks Wendell Moore Jr. and Josh Minott at Target Center.

Kessler began to unlock his potential as a freshman at North Carolina. After transferring to Auburn last year, he flourished as a rim protector. The Tigers had plenty of scorers, so he carved out his own role and won two national defensive player of the year awards while leading the country with a program-record 155 blocked shots. Kessler had two points-rebounds-blocks triple-doubles.

“It’s nice to get a little bit bigger. Oftentimes last year, we’d start small and get smaller,” coach Chris Finch said.

Kessler has a soft touch around the hoop and shot 70% from inside the arc, his overall shooting rate dragged down by a 10-for-50 performance from 3-point range that Timberwolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly briefly needled him about during the news conference.

“Oftentimes when the shot went up, you see the bench putting their hands up,” Connelly said. “Teammates know. Coaches know. They spoke highly of both his ability to make shots and, more importantly, his work ethic behind trying to improve as a shooter.”

He has bloodlines on his side, for sure. Kessler’s father, Chad, and uncle, Alec, were both NBA draft picks after standout college careers at Georgia in the 1980s. Kessler’s older brother, Houston Walker, also played for the Bulldogs from 2013-17.

Alec Kessler, who died at age 40 in 2007 after collapsing during a pickup game, is the second-leading scorer in Bulldogs history. He was the No. 12 overall selection in 1990 by the Miami Heat, for whom he played four seasons before becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

Chad Kessler was a fifth-rounder and a preseason cut by the Los Angeles Clippers, accelerating his entry into the medical field. He’s currently a back, neck and spine doctor in Georgia.

The birthplace of both Chad and Alec? Minneapolis. That’s where their father and Walker’s grandfather, Jay Kessler, played college ball for the Gophers in the early 1960s after growing up in southwest Minnesota.

“God works in mysterious ways,” Walker Kessler said, “so to be here now is really cool.”

Playing with Towns will be, too. The Wolves can offer Towns another supermax extension this summer after he was a third team All-NBA selection this season.

“I know he worked hard for it. I know he’s excited, so I think it’ll be a special moment for him and for this organization,” Finch said.

The Wolves will likely look largely the same for next season coming off their seventh-place finish in the Western Conference. Free agency will be more about finding complementary players, just like Kessler and Moore will be, for Towns, Anthony Edwards and other valued youngsters like Jaden McDaniels and Jaylen Nowell.

“We can talk about this draft class, we can talk about free agency, but the one thing we know for sure is that the internal development of Ant and Jaden and Jaylen, those three guys in particular, will be the single biggest driver of how far we can go next year,” Finch said.

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