Return to Auburn ’emotional’ for Walker Kessler

AUBURN, Alabama — Walker Kessler has been all over the map, quite literally, in the past month.

In Brooklyn for the NBA draft, he donned a Memphis hat, after being chosen No. 22 overall by the Grizzlies — in a pick that was to be sent to the Timberwolves. He was introduced in Minnesota, and three days later, was dealt to Utah in a trade.

“It’s been a whirlwind, for sure,” Kessler said.

So coming back to Auburn was refreshing for the 2021-22 national defensive player of the year. After one season apiece at North Carolina and Bruce Pearl‘s program, there’s no question where Kessler’s heart lies.

“This is my home,” Kessler said Thursday afternoon during a chat with reporters before an Auburn practice.

The 7-foot-1 center was half of an All-American frontcourt pairing for Auburn last season, as he and No. 3 overall pick Jabari Smith were the cornerstones of the team’s 19-game winning streak, first-ever No. 1 ranking in the polls and SEC regular-season championship run.

A former five-star recruit and the top prospect in Georgia from the 2020 class, Kessler transferred to Auburn after one year at UNC — and it didn’t take long for his impact to increase exponentially. He went from a seldom-used rotation player to one of the top centers in the nation. With two triple-doubles on the season, Kessler led college basketball in block rate (19.1%), plus 11.4 points per game on 60.8% shooting, and 8.1 rebounds.

Kessler has been back in Auburn the past two weekends. Thursday, he took the time to drive around campus before heading to Neville Arena: “It brings back memories. It was a bit emotional. This is home.”

He’s already gotten located in Utah, he said, where he’s excited to play in front of another passionate fanbase. Training camp starts in September. For a kid raised in Georgia, the weather will take some getting used to — and he said he has to get lots of custom clothing because of his size.

“Maybe I’ll wear some oven mitts,” he said with a half smile.

He and Smith made for the most successful NBA draft night in Auburn history, with the program earning multiple first-round picks in the same year for the first time ever. Kessler said he still talks to Smith almost daily; he was texting him before coming to the arena Thursday.

That the two are excited to face off in the league would be a sizable understatement. On draft night, in two separate interviews when asked who’re most excited to play against in the NBA, they both said each other.

Smith, of course, was a heavy projection to be the top overall pick, but things quickly shifted hours before the draft began, and Smith dropped a couple spots to No. 3 with the Rockets.

Smith said on draft night he was equal parts grateful for his selection and motivated.

“Jabari’s already an extremely motivated person — regardless of whether he’s going 1, 2, 3 or 15,” Kessler said. “For him, he’s going to come out with a killer attitude no matter the circumstances.”

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