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How Walker Kessler learned from being on the wrong side of a highlight


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SALT LAKE CITY — Walker Kessler had to interrupt the question. He was being asked how beneficial it was to have film when everything went right defensively; he heard "everything right" and chuckled.

"I don't know about everything right. There was one play, I don't know if y'all saw it but it wasn't great," Kessler said following Utah's 121-100 win over New Orleans.

Everyone in the room saw it, and so did most on the internet.

Early in the second quarter, Kessler had another one of those rookie moments. He was tasked with guarding Zion Williamson out on the perimeter, and Williamson faced him up, took a couple dribbles inside, and powered in a two-handed slam over the hapless Kessler.

It was a play that maybe only Williamson could make; and a play that made the rounds online, with everyone getting to see just how the powerful Williamson got the best of the young rookie.

"I open up way too much, blows by me, you know, puts me on a poster, baptizes me on Tuesday," Kessler said, describing the highlight play of the night.

That play, though, showed Kessler's ability to learn — and learn quickly.

The rookie from Auburn has been one of the most surprising this season. He is currently ranked as the 10th best first-year player by NBA.com and is currently sixth in the league in blocks per game at 1.9 despite playing just 17 minutes per night. His 50 blocks is 20 more than Rudy Gobert has this season, so, all in all, not a bad start for the former Auburn player.

One of the abilities that has made him special was showcased on Tuesday. Kessler prides himself as an intelligent player — he's not just a tall and athletic center that can get up and block shots — and understands angles and where he should be. He knew he wasn't where he should be on the drive by Williamson.

Sure, Williamson made a great play, but he was aided by Kessler's mistake.

He didn't make the same mistake twice. Late in the third quarter, Kessler found himself in the now-familiar situation: guarding a drive-happy Williamson on the perimeter. This time, though, he didn't give an angle; he forced Williamson to the center of the paint, stopped his progress, and then swatted his shot attempt.

"In my head, I'm not thinking like, 'Oh, he dunked on me last play.' I'm thinking, 'OK, like I opened up too much, I'm not gonna open up as much; I'm gonna bait him into doing something that he doesn't want to do,'" Kessler said.

Williamson wanted to get to the rim; Kessler didn't let him get there.

His ability to learn in-game has been one of the things that has separated him from others in his class. Yes, there's a big learning curve jumping to the NBA — he wasn't facing anything like a Zion Williamson or Nikola Jokic or Giannis Antetokounmpo in college — but he's been able to shorten that learning with his ability to figure things out on the fly.

"I think a lot of it is film, a lot of it is in game, and a lot of it is just experience," Kessler said.

It's experience that he's earning more and more as the season goes on.

When it comes to getting dunked on, he said it doesn't really faze him; he's always going to jump to try and protect the rim — sometimes he'll get.

"If anyone goes to the rim, I jump," he said. "I think that you have to have a short memory in this league, not just on the offensive end, on the defensive end as well. And because of that, it doesn't bother me. I'm still gonna jump if a guy dunked on me like four times. I'm not just gonna let him, because that dunk is a lot harder than me just moving out of the way."

As for the highlight making the rounds on social media?

"Any publicity is good publicity," he said.

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