Walker Kessler’s next step: Navigating emotions and expectations

Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler handles the ball during an NBA game at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. Kessler's second year in the NBA has had its bumps, which isn't unusual in this league.
Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler handles the ball during an NBA game at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. Kessler's second year in the NBA has had its bumps, which isn't unusual in this league. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

When Walker Kessler was younger, a negative performance, in anything, would eat away at him and linger long after the fact. It didn’t matter if it was basketball, a board game, you name it — a loss was unacceptable and when he lost, he was to blame.

“As a young kid I used to throw a tantrum whenever I lost anything,” Kessler said. “I mean, it ruined my day. I can’t tell you how many times, even playing ping pong with my brother. I lose, I’m nudging walls a little bit more that whole day.”

While the negative feelings following a subpar performance don’t linger as long as they did when Kessler was younger, he still struggles to move past things, and in the NBA he’s found that the expectations, pressures and triggers are more numerous than ever.

“I don’t like to not play to the expectation that I have for myself,” Kessler said. “And I think that I hold myself to a very high standard. But I also think it’s a balance, where you can’t let that expectation debilitate you and just make you not be able to do anything, and I think as a young kid, I used to really struggle with that.”

In addition to the pressure that he puts on himself, there’s also the inherent pressure of being an NBA player, living up to the potential that other people believe he has, dealing with the nuances of being on an ever-changing roster, and trying not to feel like decisions made above him are made directly because of him.

Kessler could be in the starting lineup one day, out of the starting lineup the next. He can play 32 minutes one night, and play just 15 minutes in the next game. He can receive an invitation to be a part of Team USA, but barely crack the rotation. He can feel like a focal point of the team and then a role player from one minute to the next.

Then, in addition to any of those scenarios, which can all feel like mixed messaging, if Kessler has a bad game, it compounds and sometimes he still struggles to move on quickly and focus on the present.

Understandably, it’s a very confusing position to be in as a 20-, 21-, 22-year-old.

“Part of my job, part of our job as an organization, is to help all these young players improve and grow in a variety of ways. This is a way that Walker needs to improve and grow,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said. “But there’s also moments where you need to give them breathing room to work through it themselves. … My biggest thing with Walker is that he understands that we value him, we’re trying to help him improve, we want the team to play well and we want him to play well.”

Feeling valued, though, can be hard when there is pressure coming from every direction. There’s the pressure a player puts on themselves, the pressure from the expectations of teammates and coaches and then there’s pressure from family, friends, agents, fans and everyone in between.

Filtering out all that noise, and helping young players realize that what is best for a team is often what is best for an individual player is not an easy task, but it’s one that is essential for NBA coaches.

For 28 years, Gregg Popovich has been that person for the San Antonio Spurs. He knows better than anyone in the NBA how important it is to be the voice of reason as a young player develops, and according to him, direct and honest communication with players is the only way to achieve success.

“I think that some coaches do make the mistake, to not face that person and tell them why, because it’s a hard discussion. But it’s an absolutely mandatory discussion,” Popovich said. “Their families don’t know crap, their agent doesn’t know crap, their friends don’t know crap. They just want everything good to happen for their son, friend, that kind of thing and I get that. But they don’t care about the whole. They care about that person’s minutes or accolades and (the player) can’t filter that out if you haven’t helped them.”

That doesn’t mean that Hardy has to have daily meetings with his players to make sure they are thinking about all the right things — frankly, an 82-game season is just too long for that kind of approach. But it does require some diligence on the part of everyone involved.

“You just have to understand that your family, for example, people around you, obviously, they have your best interests in mind, but you also have to understand that the coach has your best interest in mind as well,” Kessler said. “Of course, my family wants me to play every minute of the game and do great. But that’s not realistic. So I just continue to work and control what I can control.”

Hardy hopes that after having spent the last year and a half with Kessler, the young center knows that decisions that are made are never personal and are always made with careful consideration.

Recently, Kessler was again moved from the starting lineup to the bench rotation and in his first game off the bench, a loss to the Charlotte Hornets, he had a really bad game. Kessler admitted to letting the lineup change get to him. But, the signal of growth and maturity was that, the next day, Kessler said he shouldn’t have let the changes impact how he played and he was ready to learn from that mistake.

“I think Walker’s grown up a lot since he got here,” Hardy said. “He’s definitely better at dealing with those things now than he was at the beginning of last year. And he can continue to improve.”

Walker Kessler
Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler reacts after committing a foul against the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024, in Salt Lake City. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press