Auburn Tigers star big man Walker Kessler to enter NBA draft

Auburn sophomore Walker Kessler will enter the 2022 NBA draft and forgo his remaining college eligibility by hiring an agent, he told ESPN on Sunday.

"I am fully committed to the NBA draft," Kessler said. "I am not planning on returning to college."

Kessler, ESPN's No. 24 prospect, was awarded both Naismith and NABC National Defensive Player of the Year honors and named a third-team All-American after averaging 11.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.5 blocks in 26 minutes per game. He led Auburn to an SEC regular-season championship, winning first-team all-conference and defensive player of the year recognition along the way.

"This season was a blast for my teammates and I," Kessler said. "Winning the SEC regular season and being the No. 1 ranked team in the country for the first time in Auburn history was a dream. I really valued all the time I spent with the coaching staff and everyone around the program. It was so much fun."

Kessler started his career at North Carolina but elected to transfer to Auburn last summer, where he emerged as the best shot-blocker in college basketball and formed a potent frontcourt duo with potential No. 1 pick candidate Jabari Smith.

Kessler comes from a basketball family. His father, Chad, played at Georgia and was a fifth-round pick in the 1987 NBA draft. His uncle Alec also played at Georgia and was the No. 12 pick in the 1990 NBA draft, while his brother Houston played for Georgia from 2013 to 2017. Walker was a McDonald's All-American in high school out of Woodward Academy in Atlanta, where he won a state championship.

"Being a second-generation athlete helped me so much in understanding the mentality and work it takes to get to that level," Kessler said. "Having role models that have been there before helped me realize the dedication required to achieve my goals, and was a major advantage."

At 7-foot-1, 245 pounds with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, Kessler's appeal as an NBA prospect is readily evident on first glance. He's not only the best shot-blocker in college basketball, he also posted the highest block percentage (18.8%) over the past 15 years. He shows intriguing versatility and mobility guarding the pick-and-roll, often stepping out on the perimeter and recovering to make plays at the rim. Hitting 70% of his 2-point attempts, including an SEC-leading 79 dunks, Kessler is a steady offensive presence with his ability to catch difficult passes, convert lobs, finish plays with soft touch around the basket and make good decisions passing out of short rolls.

"I think NBA teams saw the different ways I can impact the game," Kessler said. "I have good timing as a shot-blocker and can move my feet well switching on ball screens. I'm looking forward to showing the diversity of my game, as well as my mobility."

Known for his 3-point shooting prowess in high school, that part of his game wasn't utilized much in college, something he could look to show NBA teams during the pre-draft process to complement his defensive impact and make a case for himself as a potential lottery pick.

"We had so many good offensive players at Auburn that I wasn't asked to show much of my perimeter game," Kessler said. "Coming out of high school, I felt like I was a much better offensive player than defensively, which is funny to say now. Last year at UNC was difficult because of COVID, especially mentally, and my confidence took a hit. I'm looking forward to getting back in the lab and regaining the confidence in my perimeter game through reps."

The NBA draft combine will be held May 16-22 in Chicago, and the draft will be June 23 in Brooklyn, New York.