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Jace Frederick: Timberwolves just zagged, now must hope Walker Kessler gets really good

Otherwise, Tim Connelly’s first personnel move in Minnesota will be remembered as a head-scratcher

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Alabama
Alabama Crimson Tide center Charles Bediako (10) goes to the basket against Auburn Tigers forward Walker Kessler (13) during the first half Jan. 11, 2022, at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Marvin Gentry / USA Today Sports
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It was natural for the Minnesota Timberwolves to target size in Thursday’s NBA Draft. The Wolves were routinely abused on the glass this season, and never more conspicuously than during this year’s playoff loss to Memphis.

The Timberwolves fell in six games to the Grizzlies almost solely because they couldn’t grab a fourth-quarter rebound.

So, size is exactly what the Timberwolves got. Standing at 7-foot-1 and weighing 245 pounds, Walker Kessler is a large human being who routinely controlled the paint during his sophomore season at Auburn en route to becoming the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. You don’t average 4.6 blocks a game by accident.

Minnesota has itself a paint presence it lacked in previous seasons.

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The question, of course, is what exactly is the value of that in today’s NBA? Many primary paint protectors make a massive impact in the regular season, but their value wanes when it matters most in the playoffs.

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It has become increasingly difficult for the trees to stay rooted in big playoff games as other teams go wing-heavy to put even the higher-tier true centers — a tier Kessler would do incredibly well to reach — in difficult positions.

DeAndre Ayton played just 17 minutes in Phoenix’s Game 7 loss to Dallas. The Mavericks spread out Utah to negate Rudy Gobert’s shot-blocking ability and punished the Jazz by easily generating deep, open looks. The Celtics outscored Milwaukee by 18.1 points per 100 possessions when Brook Lopez was on the floor. And while he’s not exactly a shot blocker, Wolves’ fans surely remember how quickly Minnesota played Memphis center Steven Adams off the floor.

For Minnesota, that might not matter at the moment. Yes, the Timberwolves reached the postseason a year ago, but they’re still likely at a stage of development where it’s important to simply get back there in what figures to be a more difficult Western Conference next season. Someone of Kessler’s ilk would only ease the burden for Minnesota’s perimeter defenders during the regular season, as well as take some of the interior load off of Karl-Anthony Towns.

That makes sense if Kessler can contribute significant minutes this season. Tim Connelly, Minnesota’s new president of basketball operations, didn’t make it seem as though that was likely. He noted, factually, that rookies rarely contribute at a high level to winning teams. It would be tough for any non-top five pick to crack the Wolves’ already competitive rotation.

“The draft is for the next two, three, four, five, six, seven years,” Connelly said. “So, I think to expect the picks … to come make an instant impact on a team that has great depth, that has really productive players as is, is probably unfair. I don’t think on the immediate future it will have a huge impact.”

Which confuses matters, because if Kessler is indeed a year or two away from being a high-level contributor, that figures to be around the point when a core of Towns, Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels is getting primed to make deeper postseason runs. Can Kessler —or really any big in his archetype — contribute to those types of playoff pushes?

NBA: Draft
Walker Kessler (Auburn) shakes hands with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number twenty-two overall pick by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft on Thursday, June 23, 2022, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Brad Penner / USA Today Sports

Maybe. Defense wins in the playoffs, and Kessler does have solid mobility for a player of his size.

But he also was played off the floor in Auburn’s NCAA tournament loss to Miami because the Hurricanes’ all-wing starting lineup presented a significant matchup problem. It’s easy to see how a similar situation could present itself in a big series against, say, a Dallas or Boston, or any other teams sure to follow that mold in the coming years.

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The Athletic draft analyst Sam Vecenie said Kessler “has a real chance to be a relatively limited, ‘82-game player,’” as opposed to a valuable playoff contributor. Generally, teams should target the latter.

“When opponents can get him out in swaths of space with quicker, shifty guards, he will get exposed. Happened in college, will absolutely happen in the NBA,” Vecenie wrote . “There’s a real chance he’ll be a liability against some of the best guards and wings in the NBA that can force him to switch onto them and turn him around.”

There seems to be a reason the final four NBA teams standing this season featured mobile bigs such as Bam Adebayo, Kevon Looney, Draymond Green, Robert Williams and Al Horford — none of whom exceed 6-9.

Perhaps Connelly and Co. see that trend and decided it best to zag while the rest of the league zigged. Maybe the Wolves can pair Kessler with Towns and simply out-size opponents, even in the most important times of the season. It’s possible Kessler can evolve and become so versatile and dominant that there will not be a matchup for which he’s not suitable.

If he can, then the Timberwolves may have hit a home run with the big man in Connelly’s first swing.

If not, Connelly’s initial personnel move in Minnesota may be remembered as a head-scratcher. Connelly noted prior to Thursday’s draft that selections shouldn’t be judged for three years. So, for now, we’ll wait.

And then, when Kessler’s playoff moment finally arises, we’ll know.

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