When your name is mentioned in the same sentence with stars like Tim Duncan, you know your NBA career is off to a good start.
After finishing in the top-3 for Rookie of the Year voting, Kessler was named to the All-Rookie first team following his sensational rookie season.
"It's a good feeling. … It's cool to have that recognition," Kessler said. "Honestly, I thought it was possible because I knew what I could do. … I just didn't know if the opportunities would be given. I'm lucky to have my teammates and the staff, I wouldn't be able to do anything without them."
After being brought along slowly by head coach Will Hardy and staff, injuries to the team gave Kessler the opportunity for an expanded role as he stepped into the starting lineup. It was an opportunity he didn't let pass him by, as the 7-foot center ran with it and never looked back.
His season changed on Jan. 10 in Utah's victory over Cleveland, getting the start following an ankle injury to Kelly Olynyk. He then dropped double-doubles in three of the next five games — including a rare 20-point, 20-rebound performance against Minnesota and the first one in history for a Utah Jazz rookie.
And he never went back to the bench.
He finished the year averaging 11.5 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks in his 40 starts. He was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for February, debuted in the Rising Stars game at All-Star weekend that same month, and then dropped a career-high 31 points in late March.
"The physical tools that he has allowed him to have an opportunity to be successful," Hardy said of his rookie big man. "He showed so much growth on both ends of the floor. I think defense probably comes natural to Walker in a lot of ways, but his ability to learn the offense on the fly was tremendous."
With his playing time increasing, he quickly established himself as one of the better rim protectors in the league.
"Like all of the best defenders in the NBA, part of it is they have a reputation," Hardy said of Kessler. "I think for sure the reputation that he has now is helpful. … He's really gotten the respect of the league, the officials, the players, in terms of being one of those premier shot blockers."
Yet when asked about the recognition and how he's taken a giant leap this season, Kessler quickly points out that his teammates and coaches deserve the most credit for teaching him.
"I just wanted to learn," he said. "I went into this year trying to learn as much as I could so when I do get the opportunity, I can take advantage and try to help us win the game. I figured by doing that, the rest would take care of itself."
That success, respect, and accolades lead back to being named in the same sentence as Duncan. While nobody is predicting that Kessler will be the second coming of Duncan, he put up defensive numbers that no rookie had come close to averaging since the Spurs legend.
Kessler became the first rookie in 25 years to record at least four games of 7+ blocks, trailing Duncan's five times in 1998, and he became the first Jazz rookie ever to record a 30-point, 10-rebound game.
"I always had this belief in me. … but it's funny how everything works out," he said.