Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker has been solid for a few years now, but he wants to leap into stardom.
For the first five seasons of his career, Kemba Walker was a player who spent a lot of time teetering on All-Stardom. After 2017, it’s clear that Walker can compete with the NBA’s best. In 79 games with the Hornets, the 27-year-old averaged a career-best 23.2 points while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 39.9 percent from three. He also added 5.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds, and that line is what landed him on his first All-Star team.
Charlotte, however, flopped. Walker was far-and-away their best player, but they couldn’t capitalize on his production. They finished with a 36-46 record overall, and that includes going 14-27 after the All-Star break. Just one year earlier, the Hornets were the Eastern Conference’s sixth-best team and nearly beat the Miami Heat in seven games.
Walker wants to return to the postseason, but he also hopes to have another season where he sets career-highs across the board and emerges as one of the best point guards in the NBA — not just the East.
“All-NBA would be a huge honor, a huge challenge for myself,” said Walker to theScore’s Victoria Nguyen at an NBA 2K18 event in New York. “I definitely want to continue to make the All-Star team, of course, but the main goal is to get my team to the playoffs,” he continued. “I hate missing the playoffs. It’s like we get in, then we’re not, we miss, then we’re in. I want to be more consistent making the playoffs, so hopefully, we start this season.”
The Hornets going back to the postseason isn’t the part of the quote I’m going to dissect. That comes in the opening. Making an All-NBA team usually means being one of the league’s 15 best players. However, landing on one of the backcourt spots means being a star bordering on superstardom.
This year had James Harden and Russell Westbrook on the first team, Stephen Curry and Isaiah Thomas on the second team and John Wall and DeMar DeRozan on the third team. Some notables who got left off include Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry. I probably forgot a couple of players, but just remember how difficult it is becoming an All-NBA guard because the talent pool is so deep. For Kemba Walker to enter the voting, he’ll need to have a tremendous season this year and go from an All-Star to a damn-near superstar. It’s a tall task. But Kemba’s made huge leaps in the past.
Back during his UConn days, Walker increased his scoring average by nearly nine points from his sophomore (14.6) to junior year (23.5). After that rise, the Huskies rode Walker all the way to a shocking NCAA Tournament title, and I’m sure the Hornets would like to capture some of that magic.
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While their title hopes are slim, more improvement from Walker is all but guaranteed. He’s about to enter his prime, and he’s now putting together a complete offensive game, an assessment contrary to his early years. At the start of the decade, inconsistency marred Kemba’s offense. He had no perimeter jump shot and couldn’t buy a bucket from two; according to Basketball Reference, Walker shot 51.9 percent inside the paint from 2012-15. At 6-1, Walker’s a small guard, but a clip that low was cause for concern.
Since then, Kemba has worked vehemently to develop a shot from downtown because that makes the game much easier for him. In 2016, he connected on 37.1 percent of his triples before eclipsing that mark this year. On top of his efficiency, Walker’s got the volume to match. He gave Charlotte 3.0 made threes a night, giving him 240 for the season and placing him sixth in the league.
The Hornets’ offense is reliant on ball movement, and having Nic Batum act like an overgrown point guard allows Kemba to play off-the-ball. It’s not a strategy they can employ full-time, but, when they go to it, Walker’s becomes more lethal. According to NBA.com, the Bronx-native averaged 2.8 catch-and-shoot threes a game. He made 47.7 percent of them. That ranked third among players with at least 100 total attempts. Once this season starts, Malik Monk will make an impact at some point. If Monk starts gaining traction, it’s going to benefit Kemba because he’ll have a legitimate threat alongside him. (Basically, Walker’s going to get more open looks, and that’s all a dead-eye shooter can ask for.)
An improved outside shot isn’t the only thing that got Kemba out of his rut. As a whole, his offense has gotten better, and he’s undoubtedly one of the most dynamic scoring guards in the league. Not only do the numbers say it, but the eye test backs it up. Or vice versa.
Walker has learned to use his size as an advantage. The NBA’s website lists him at 6-1, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he were sub-six-foot. Regardless, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him quickness combined with selective explosiveness makes Walker a handful to guard in the half-court. His short stature gives him a lower center of gravity, making it easier to drop his hips and just run past guys. However, not every drive is that easy. A lot of Walker’s defenders are bigger and longer and can cover more ground, but he’s developed a secure handle highlighted by a sweeping crossover so violent it leaves defenders (a.) in his tracks or (b.) on the ground.
Changing gears is necessary for any guard, especially smaller ones. If they’re unable to create space, it’s easier for someone to check them.
Despite his share of highlights, Walker averaged 0.76 points per isolation possession last year, per Synergy. That’s dreadful. There’s no way a guard of his caliber should be in the 39th percentile. However, there’s a silver lining. Walker doesn’t isolate much (6.2 percent of the time), but, if he improves that, his scoring and assists numbers are going to rise because he’s creating more offense.
The pick-and-roll is what consumes a lot of Kemba Walker’s energy. I’m a big fan of his self-awareness. If I had to guess, Walked watched film of himself and thought, “hm, I’m more efficient using screens than I am going one-on-one, so I’m going to involve my bigs as often as I can.” He and Russell Westbrook were tied for the league lead in pick-and-roll ball handler possessions with 967. On that play type, he scored 42.7 percent of the time and boasted an effective goal clip of 50.1 percent while maintaining 0.98 points per possession, placing him in the 86th percentile.
This campaign was the second-straight where Walker finished top-three in possessions, and his improved offense made him more challenging to guard. Synergy doesn’t have data that goes back to his early years, but I’ll guarantee that defenders were going under the screen as often as they could. Coaches would plan to have their guys do everything possible to turn Walker into a jump shooter. Now, it’s not that easy. He’s not as accurate on pull-up threes (35.4 percent), but no one’s going to take that chance. Further, bigs are helpless if Kemba hits them with a hesitation. They can hedge to make Walker go East and West opposed to North and South, but he can slither through the defenders and free himself up for the jumper.
It’s going to take a lot for Kemba Walker to make an All-NBA team this year. He’s going to have to outplay almost all of the league’s premier guards while leading the Hornets to a memorable season that hopefully doesn’t end in the first round of the playoffs. Walker’s offense is going to be the catalyst, and another career year is certainly plausible.
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