"Opportunity To Be Successful" | Utah Rookie Walker Kessler Named To 2023 Jordan Rising Stars Game

Ryan Kostecka
Digital Content Writer

Among Walker Kessler's many goals for his career in the NBA and life, in general, is opening up a chain of Waffle House restaurants and being an NBA starter. 

Although the Waffle Houses may have to wait a little longer, Kessler has already achieved one goal after moving into the starting lineup for the Jazz over the past few weeks. 

Announced on Tuesday afternoon, Kessler has been named to the 2023 Jordan Rising Stars game at NBA All-Star Weekend. The game is set to tipoff on Friday, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m. MT at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City.  

"I feel good. ... Super thankful to my teammates, coaching staff because I wouldn’t be able to do it without them," Kessler said. " It's very exciting. ... I'm very blessed because this year was about learning and absorbing as much information going forward."

Initially drafted by Minnesota last June, Kessler was part of the trade that sent former Jazzman Rudy Gobert to the Timberwolves in exchange for Jarred Vanderbilt, Patrick Beverley, Malik Beasley, and multiple first round draft picks and swaps. 

While many in the media focused on Utah's addition of Vanderbilt, Beasley, and Beverley — as well as the picks — lost amongst the shuffle was the only guy who had yet to step on an NBA court. 

Kessler entered the NBA as an elite college shot blocker — but it was assumed he didn't offer much else on the offensive end, at least initially. Fast forward to February, and the player who was once considered an afterthought in one of the biggest trades of the last decade looks like a contender to make the All-Rookie team. 

"The physical tools that he has allows him to have an opportunity to be successful," head coach Will Hardy said of his rookie big man. "He's shown 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 has been tremendous."

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 16: Walker Kessler #24 of the Utah Jazz goes to the basket while Kyle Anderson #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves defends in the third quarter of the game at Target Center on January 16, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Jazz defeated the Timberwolves 126-125. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

While his numbers may not jump off the page — 49 games (15 starts) where he's averaging 7.7 points (71.5% shooting), 7.3 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in 20.2 minutes per game — Kessler more than passes the eye test and analytics. 

His per-36 minutes stats are Gobert-esque; 13.7 points, 13.0 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks on 71.5% shooting. His numbers as a starter prove that he's ready for the bigger role that's come his way, averaging 10.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks in 26.0 minutes per game.

Kessler leads all rookies in Win Shares, Box Plus-Minus, and Value Over Replacement Player, to name a few. His 2.0 blocks per game rank sixth in the NBA — one of two players in the top 10 averaging less than 26 minutes per game. His 96 blocks rank fifth in the NBA (first among rookies), and among first-year players, his points per game average is ranked 12th, and rebounds ranked second.

"It's vital to have a guy that can make plays and be unselfish with it," point guard Mike Conley said of Kessler's offense. "He's a guy that's big enough to go finish over anybody, but he understands his role for where he's gotta be the guy that finds the open man and make the read. … He's been learning and doing a lot of studying, so he's been really good."

Kessler's best game of the season came two weeks ago against the Timberwolves when he finished with 20 points, a career-high 21 rebounds, and two blocks. He also added four assists, a huge development that he's finally catching up to the speed of the game.

His 20-point, 20-rebound performance was the first by a rookie in the NBA since 2014 — and he was the first rookie since Alonzo Mourning (1992-93) to put up those numbers on 65% shooting or better.

Kessler becomes the 15th Jazz player to participate in a Rising Stars or rookie challenge, joining Bryon Russell (1994), Andrei Kirilenko (2002, 2003), Deron Williams (2006, 2007), Paul Millsap (2007, 2008), Ronnie Brewer (2008), Derrick Favors (2012), Gordon Hayward (2012), Trey Burke (2014, 2015), Rodney Hood (2015), Rudy Gobert (2015), Danté Exum (2015, 2017), Raul Neto (2016), Trey Lyles (2016, 2017), and Donovan Mitchell (2018, 2019).

"It's funny how everything works out," Kessler said. "The fact that I'll be in the city where I play, representing the team, I wouldn’t want to represent any other city. The fanbase has been unbelievable, I love them."

The player pool consists of 11/10 NBA rookies, 11/10 second-year NBA players, and seven NBA G League players. The 21 NBA players, selected by NBA assistant coaches, will be drafted onto three seven-player teams. The seven NBA G League players, chosen by the league office, will comprise the fourth team.    

All three games in Jordan Rising Stars will be played to a Final Target Score, meaning that a game will end with a made basket or a made free throw instead of the clock running out. The semifinal games will be played to a Final Target Score of 40. The final game will be played to a Final Target Score of 25.

Team A will face Team B in the first semifinal (Game 1), and Team C will play Team D in the second semifinal (Game 2). The winner of Game 1 will meet the winner of Game 2 in the final (Game 3).