Checking in on the NBA rookie center crop

Jalen Duren, Mark Williams and Walker Kessler have been overshadowed by other NBA rookies but all three look like home run picks. What have we seen so far?

Just three centers were selected in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft. And while none of them are in the Rookie of the Year conversation, all three appear to have been extremely solid picks.

Here’s what we’ve seen so far from the latest crop of NBA rookie bigs:

Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Kessler was the last center drafted in the first round, selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves and then sent to the Utah Jazz and as part of the Rudy Gobert deal. He was a prolific shot-blocker and hyper-efficient finisher in college but there were big questions about how well those skills would translate to the NBA, driven by touch, size and timing rather than elite athletic tools.

So far, Kessler has held up remarkably well. He’s a regular fixture in the Jazz rotation, averaging 6.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in just under 20 minutes per game, while shooting 70.3 percent from the floor.

Kessler has had plenty of opportunities to show his chops as a rim protector and opponents are shooting 11.7 percentage points worse than expected on shots within six feet of the basket when he’s the closest defender. That’s one of the best marks in the league among players who average at least 5.0 such shots defended per game and on par with elite defensive bigs like Jaren Jackson Jr., Nic Claxton and Kristaps Porzingis.

He’s looked much more mobile than implied by his pre-draft profile, capable of moving in space and making multiple rotations.

On offense, more than half his finished possessions have come off cuts or putbacks but his wide frame makes him an excellent screener and he has the solid hands to catch and finish in traffic.

And if you want an example of how good his touch has been, he’s shooting 70.6 percent within 10 feet of the basket and less than half of those makes have been dunks. He may not have the star potential of the other three but he’s going to be a very solid rotation big for a long time and it’s not hard to imagine him as a key piece on a championship contender.

Mark Williams, Charlotte Hornets

Williams has played by far the least of any of the three centers taken in the first round, with an ankle injury explaining at least some of his absence from the rotation. He’s appeared in just 12 games for a total of 164 minutes but showed some flashes over a nine-game stretch averaging double-digit minutes from Dec. 26 until he received a DNP-Coaches Decision in the Hornets’ most recent game.

Even in his limited minutes, we’ve seen flashes of his defensive upside. His length and quickness have allowed him to make highlight plays even when he’s out of position as his awareness catches up to his tools.

But we’ve also seen moments where his positioning and awareness are impeccable, rotating into tough situations and handling them like a savvy veteran.

On offense, Williams is almost completely limited to finishing off cuts, lobs and offensive rebounds at this point. It may be a while before he has much else to offer at that end of the floor but his size, quickness and catch-radius will make him a threat in the pick-and-roll and his defensive upside is probably worth investing in with as many developmental minutes as possible for the rebuilding Hornets.

Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons

Duren was the first center off the board in the 2022 NBA Draft and he’s been a much bigger part of his team’s rotation than either of the other two — averaging 7.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.0 assists in just under 25 minutes per game. At this point, he isn’t quite as developed a rim protector as Kessler. Still, he’s already figuring out how to use his immense physical tools to control the middle of the floor, including defending in space, switching onto the perimeter and tracking penetration.

On offense, he’s a dominating paint finisher although he still hasn’t stretched his range much beyond the restricted area — nearly two-thirds of his shots this season have been dunks. But even if it takes him a few years to really develop his shooting range of his work on the glass and his strength and vertical explosion in the pick-and-roll can make him a net-positive player on offense.

The next step for him is to continue developing his passing and awareness but he’s already shown signs of being able to find the open man on the short-roll and playmake from the elbows and the top of the key.

538’s RAPTOR metric estimates that Duren is already a positive defensive player as a rookie and his ceiling looks immense on that end. As he continues to add versatility to his offensive game and build pick-and-roll chemistry with Jaden Ivey and Cade Cunningham over the next year or two, he could really be a two-way star.


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