We are starting a series with breakdowns of some of the top potential breakout candidates in college basketball next season with the 2022 NBA Draft in mind. Today, we begin with a trio of bigs with unique skill sets and that possess the ability to have highly impactful seasons next year.
The three prospects we focus on: Walker Kessler, Jaylin Williams, and Jordan Hall.
Walker Kessler- Sophomore, Auburn (North Carolina transfer)
7-foot-1, 245 pounds, 7-foot-6 wingspan
Basketball courses through Walker Kessler’s veins. Blood of big men. Walker’s father, Chad (6-foot-8), as well as Chad’s brother, Alec (6-foot-11), both played basketball at Georgia. Alec Kessler went on to play a few years in the NBA before joining Chad as an orthopedic surgeon. Walker’s brother, Houston (6-foot-8), also played at Georgia, but Walker wanted to blaze his own trail, landing at North Carolina in the last season of the Roy Williams era.
In his freshman season at UNC, Kessler struggled to get on the floor for long stretches. He appeared in all 29 games for the Tarheels but only played more than 15 minutes twice. When he did play, he really shined. In 24 minutes against Florida State on Feb. 27, Kessler totaled 20 points on 9-10 shooting, 8 rebounds, and 4 blocks. In 21 minutes against Notre Dame on March 10 in the second round of the ACC Tournament, he totaled 16 points on 7-11 shooting, 12 rebounds, and 8 blocks. North Carolina won both games.
One of the biggest points about Kessler’s game really pops in those two lines: 12 blocks between the two games over a span of 45 minutes, more than a block every four minutes! This is one of the places that big man DNA really shows itself. Kessler’s instincts under the basket are elite at his age, and he has the physical tools to really dominate in that area.
The aspect that really sets him apart as a potential elite big man in the modern NBA is his footwork that enables him to use his height, length, and big man instincts to his advantage. That footwork shows up on both ends, too. Kessler is quick and light on his feet in ways that most 7-foot-plus guys only dream of.
Following the freshman season that didn’t live up to Kessler’s hopes, he stands poised for a great sophomore season at Auburn. The Tarheels almost always played Kessler alongside another big, something that will happen much less frequently under Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl.
He should be able to establish himself as a perfect fit in the modern NBA in systems that always play at least 4-out, if not 5. Kessler has the mid-range touch to give optimism that he can extend his shot out to distance working as a trailer, spot-up in the corner, or pick-and-pop situations.
The one concern for Auburn Kessler is playing alongside Jabari Smith Jr., incoming top-5 recruit. Kessler struggled to play alongside bigs in Durham, though Smith Jr., standing 6’10 and weighing 210, projects more as a perimeter-oriented big and as a help-side rim protector. As long as Coach Pearl is able to design a system that properly spaces the two of them apart and both guys buy-in, both could end their season as projected lottery picks.
Jaylin Williams-Sophomore, Arkansas
6-foot-10, 245 pounds
Jaylin Williams arrived at Arkansas as a local darling, having played his high school ball just an hour away from campus, solidified as the best high school player in the state. He was a four-star recruit (88th overall in his class, per 247).
High rankings, good athleticism, and real size only led to a lackluster freshman showing, starting only 5 of 26 games, stuck behind 7-foot-3 redshirt junior Connor Vanover. Many around the program believe Williams will be the full-time starter in 2021-22, and may even be the Razorbacks’ best player as a sophomore.
The optimism surrounding Williams’ outlook is supported by his play in the USA Basketball U19 camp in preparation for the 2021 U19 FIBA World Cup. He was on the list of initial tryout invites that included 26 others of the best American teenagers playing the game. Although he was among the first group of cuts, being considered alone speaks highly to where his game is at, and the experience in that training camp is often valuable going forward.
Williams is a prototypical low-usage, low-maintenance center ready to succeed in a spread-out game. He has a solid feel for where to station himself on both ends of the court, never taking up the wrong space on offense and always taking up the right space on defense. Williams thrives out of the dunker’s spot when in 4-out sets and can connect the offense well out of the nail, whether via passing to shooters or cutters, or taking care of business himself.
With solid touch from the mid-range as well as from deep, the defense at least has to pay attention to him, and Williams moves well enough to make defenders pay when attacking closeouts. His 74% free throw shooting is top-tier for his size and age, and it should project well going forward.
His most promising skill at this stage is his positionally elite passing, often pulling off whip passes that many guards struggle with. To improve his stock for the 2022 draft, Williams needs to focus on quicker actions with the ball in his hands. A more decisive Jaylin Williams could tear SEC defenses to shreds.
Jordan Hall- Sophomore, Texas A&M (St. Joseph’s transfer)
6-foot-8, 210 pounds
Jordan Hall had spent his entire life in the northeast USA area up until his decision to transfer to Texas A&M. Born in New Jersey and started his prep ball career in New Jersey, the Hall family moved to Philadelphia while Jordan was an underclassman and he spent the rest of his prep career there. Hall also starred on the Philadelphia-based AAU squad Team Final during that time.
Hall had a spectacular freshman showing as a St. Joseph’s Hawk, including the fourth triple-double in program history (22 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists on Feb. 20 against La Salle) as well as being Division I’s leading assist man among freshmen for the season. Hall shot well from the floor as well, especially for someone at his size.
The staff and teammates at St. Joseph’s had nothing but glowing remarks for Hall. Coach Billy Lange called Hall one of the top 10 passers he’s been around. The team’s leading scorer, Ryan Daly, said, “I think he can play professionally… he has what it takes to be great.” Coach Lange had plans for Hall to be the center of the universe for the 2021-22 squad, but Hall needed a change of scenery.
Citing family issues, Hall decided to transfer to Texas A&M, a move that also makes basketball sense aside from the off-court matters. Andrew Bowman, a high school assistant who coached Hall, said, “I think he just needs to find somewhere to grow… Getting away from Philly and the area will let him focus more on those things.” So, now on the move to College Station, the mid-major, high-usage star is poised to break out for a program that regularly makes NCAA tournament appearances.
In preparation for this season, Hall was a finalist for Team USA’s U19 squad in preparation for the FIBA event coming up in July and trained in the competitive environment.
Although a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio is nothing to scoff at, especially as a 6-foot-8 freshman, Hall left some to be desired with his 3 turnovers per game at the mid-major level. Showing better ball security coupled with a further dynamic game as an Aggie could push Hall into the first round of the 2022 draft.
In a conference as defensively potent and physical as the SEC, he will need to show he can handle the style of play whether working out of pick-and-roll, transition, or any other ways Coach Buzz Williams and the Aggies choose to attack. Also, Hall could follow the tradition of so many Aggies under Coach Williams in terms of putting on muscle and filling out his frame in this tentative final collegiate season.
UPDATE: Shortly after the publication of this article, Hall announced he would return to St. Joseph’s after all.
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