Auburn big man Walker Kessler selected No. 22 in NBA Draft first round

Walker Kessler, whose one season with the Auburn basketball team was an impactful one, has been selected with the 22nd pick in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft on Thursday night. Memphis is expected to trade Kessler to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The seven-foot-one sophomore earned multiple honors during the 2021-22 season as a major factor in Auburn winning the Southeastern Conference regular season championship. An outstanding defender, Kessler demolished Auburn’s single-season blocked shots record with 155 while helping the Tigers post a 28-6 record.

“I am ecstatic,” Kessler said on Thursday night. “I am excited for the opportunity. I know, as a kid, you look at this level of basketball and you don’t really understand that it’s a real thing, it is an attainable thing, and to finally get here, I mean, it’s surreal. I am just so excited.”

Kessler said that he believes his defense and desire to win will help him contribute immediately as an NBA rookie.

His teammate, freshman power forward Jabari Smith, was also drafted on Thursday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Smith was the third player chosen in the opening round, going to the Houston Rockets. Two Auburn players being selected in the first round of an NBA Draft is a first for the Auburn program.

Auburn’s head coach, Bruce Pearl, said he is excited for Kessler, a player he recruited when the big man was earning Georgia player of the year honors in high school at Woodward Academy in Atlanta. However, he originally picked another college program over the Tigers.

After transferring to Auburn from the University of North Carolina, Kessler became the first player in program history to win a national defensive player of the year award. He averaged 11.4 points and a team-leading 8.1 rebounds per contest. He ranked second nationally in blocked shots per game at 4.6. He averaged 4.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.9 blocked shots per game as a freshman.

“Give Walker all of the credit going from playing eight minutes a game at North Carolina to being the first team All-SEC and national defensive player of the year,” said Bruce Pearl, Auburn’s head coach.

“Defensively, he is going to be able to play with anybody,” Pearl said. “He is going to be able to move his feet, he is going to be a problem for those guards, he is going to be able to protect the rim, he is going to be able to extend on the perimeter. He is long. He is going to be able to run the floor.”

Kessler produced two of the three triple-doubles in Auburn hoops history while also having 13 double-doubles. His high scoring game was 22 points vs. Vanderbilt, he pulled in a season-high 19 rebounds vs. Arkansas and blocked a season-best 12 shots vs. Texas A&M.

Kessler shot 60.5 percent from the field, 20 percent on threes and 59.6 percent at the free throw line. In SEC games he shot 65.0 percent from the field, 22.7 percent on threes and 61.5 percent at the foul line while averaging 12.4 points and 8.7 rebounds.

“He will shoot better in the NBA than he did in college,” predicted Pearl, who added that Kessler and his teammate Smith both have the toughness needed to play at basketball’s highest level.

“I’m so happy for Walker and his family,” Pearl said. “Walker has had to carry the weight of a lot of people that have doubted him. He delivered in a huge way. I felt like Walker affected the game as much as any player in college basketball. He dominated the rim on both ends of the floor. And at the same time, I think his game really translates to the next level.”

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas called the Auburn big man “a terror around the basket” while adding, “He covered up the rim from 12 feet and in.”

Honors he received while playing one season with the Tigers include:

*Naismith Men’s Defensive Player of the Year

*National Association of Basketball Coaches Division I Defensive Player of the Year

*SEC Defensive Player of the Year

*First Team All-SEC

*SEC Player of the Week (three times)

*United States Basketball Writers Association National Player of the Week (Jan. 4, 2022)

*John R. Wooden Award National Player of the Year Finalist

*USBWA Men’s Division I All-America Third Team

*Associated Press All-America Third Team

*Sports Illustrated All-America Third Team

*SEC All-Defensive Team

* Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award Finalist

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