Walker Kessler has the skills to be really good for UNC, and he proved just that on Wednesday night.
Looking at the Tar Heel men huddled in the corner of the Dean E. Smith Center, the 7-foot-1 former five-star recruit is unmissable. He towers over his teammates. But so far this season, a quick glance at a stat sheet might lead one to overlook the first-year big.
Right now, he’s a bench player. But that’s exactly what UNC needed in Wednesday night’s 82-62 victory over Northeastern. That spark off the bench is exactly what UNC needs in a weird season where the team goes from preparing for top-25 Virginia Tech to non-conference Northeastern at a moment’s notice.
“We made a point before the Virginia game that we needed to get more out of (bench players) scoring-wise,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “Walker Kessler had two good games back to back now, so we need to keep going with our bench because I think at the end of the season, people just get more tired, and you got to have somebody that can come in and your level of play cannot go down.”
And tonight, the bench delivered.
25 of UNC’s first 38 points came from bench players, and the Tar Heels headed to the locker room postgame with a 40-12 edge in bench points. The second unit made a clear difference in securing a dominating win — a note made all the more obvious by Northeastern’s second-half fizzle that saw Husky guard Tyson Walker follow up a 21-point first half with only six in the second, with little help from their depth to make up for it.
And to match his large stature, Kessler is finally standing out on the stat sheet, with 10 of those bench points and seven rebounds belonging to the young big. Kessler had had a slow start, but nobody has to tell him that.
First-year guard Caleb Love said Kessler is one of the hardest players on himself. He knows his faults and he grinds to work on them — a point emphasized when, about an hour after the game, lights dimming across the Smith Center, Kessler came back to the court to shoot for another half-hour.
“It was only a matter of time,” first-year guard Kerwin Walton said of Kessler having a season-high showcase for the second game in a row, despite the lackluster start to his collegiate career.
For Kessler, though, a season high wasn’t good enough. Each day he wants to prove how good he can, and will, be. He can't help it. It's how he’s always been.
“I grew up, older brother, older sister, and my whole family was just super competitive,” Kessler said. “We just always wanted to win. A side effect of it is being super hard on yourself, so I definitely have had to struggle with that, but I think I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for that.”
If his banked 3-pointer in the opening half — the first of his collegiate career — is any indication of his current play, he’s not perfect. Sometimes his play is hit-or-miss, but he believes in his skill and, especially, his hustle.
“I really think I have a lot of skill that hasn’t really been shown yet,” Kessler said. “I’m obviously not the most athletic person on the court, I think that’s pretty apparent, but regardless of how much athleticism someone has, you can always hustle. I always say better to make a mistake hustling because you never know what’s going to come out of it."
Kessler proved that hustle Wednesday with his shooting.
Shoot, miss, try again. Shoot, miss, try again.
Shoot, make it and keep the chin up.
That’s his mantra.
“Just not quitting, getting the rebound, shooting again, missing again and again and still going after it and eventually pushing through and overcoming,” Kessler said.