Here was the situation: No. 2 Woodward Academy was playing No. 3 Sandy Creek in what some thought might be the de facto Class AAAA boys high school basketball championship game. No. 1 Americus-Sumter had lost the night before.
Woodward brought out the state’s No. 1 senior prospect, 7-foot Walker Kessler. Sandy Creek countered with the state’s No. 1 junior prospect, 6-10 Jabari Smith.
“Walker Kessler was easily the hardest player for us to prepare for,” Sandy Creek coach Tyler Whitlock said. “He is a very selfless player, doing whatever it takes for his team to win. If that meant scoring only 10 points and grabbing 15 rebounds, that’s what he would do. On the other hand, if it meant dropping 30 points with 20 rebounds, he was able to do that, too.”
It was more the latter on that Wednesday night in February, when Kessler — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s all-classification boys player of the year — made 14 of 25 shots from the field, one a 3-pointer, and scored 33 points. He also had 13 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Smith was as good as advertised, too. He scored 25 points with 11 rebounds. But Woodward prevailed 58-56 and went on to win the first boys basketball state championship in the school’s 120-year history.
Woodward coach Anthony Thomas agreed with Whitlock’s assessment.
“The biggest thing that Walker brings is his unselfishness,” Thomas said. “With his skill set, it would be easy for him to say, ‘I’m the guy. I want all the shots and I’ll make all the plays.’ He does a great job of making sure everybody is included. Not that there aren’t times where he doesn’t take over.”
Kessler averaged 17.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 5.2 blocked shots, 1.3 steals and 1.2 assists during his senior season. A 5-star prospect, he signed with North Carolina in November.
Denmark coach Jon-Michael Nickerson, whose team played Woodward in the semifinals, praised Kessler’s defense. Beaten 64-43, Denmark was held to a season-low point total. Kessler blocked six shots to go with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
“He’s dynamic on both ends,” Nickerson said. “There are plenty who are (good) offensively, but only a small few who change the entire scouting report on both ends.”
Thomas, a star player at Woodward in the 1990s, said that Kessler’s talent has been apparent for years and that his recent improvement has come with maturity. Kessler is the son of Chad Kessler, a former Georgia player who is an orthopedic surgeon. Kessler’s uncle, the late Alec Kessler, was a 6-11 forward and all-SEC player who led Georgia to an SEC title in 1990. Alec Kessler played in the NBA.
Size, athleticism and family pedigree bring a certain measure of attention.
“The progression has been mental, dealing with people trying to critique him since he was 14-, 15-years-old, saying he’s not as good as advertised,” Thomas said. “When I first started working with him, if he didn’t have what he felt like was his best game, he’d take it hard.”
Thomas said he saw Kessler and his team play at a level previously unseen in December while facing powers from three different states at the Tournament of Champions in Illinois. Kessler averaged a triple-double and broke the 16-year-old tournament’s record for blocked shots as Woodward went 4-0.
“That was the first stretch where he showed, ‘OK, I’m ready to go this year,’ ” Thomas said. “He learned that all he had to do was be the best Walker Kessler he could be. If that help his teammates win, that’s what the goal should be. This year, that was him in a nutshell. Good game, bad game, it didn’t frustrate him. Just move on.”
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