Why Kemba Walker's Evolution Is the Real Deal
Throughout the first four years of his career, Kemba Walker's game has seemed incomplete.
Yes, he possesses a devastating crossover. He also has exceptional quickness perfectly suited for the fast break. And of course, he has come up with some of the biggest game-winning shots in recent memory.
Walker has always been a highlight reel player. However, as a career 39.5 percent shooter from the field, the Hornets' point guard was never going to amount to anything more than a middle of the road NBA player by tossing up bricks on the regular.
This season, though, everything has been different for the 25-year-old. Through 17 games, Walker is on pace to shatter his career highs in multiple offensive categories.
His above average shooting deserves most of the credit for his breakout this season. By being able to able to drop shots on a consistent basis, his overall effieciency has him in the upper echelon of players this season.
First off, his 7.7 nERD rating, an estimate of how many games above or below .500 a league-average team would win with that player as one of their starters, places Walker in the top 20 of our player power rankings. He also ranks in the top 20 of both Win Shares and Offensive Box Plus/Minus.
Combined with his improved defensive play (career-high steals and Defensive Rating), Walker is truly leading the Hornets back to relevancy in the East, as Charlotte sits with a 10-7 record so far.
While we could just chalk up the improved percentages to a small sample size and expect Walker to revert to his cold-shooting past, in reality, there are a couple of fairly simple explanations for his sudden emergence as an efficient shooter. First up, the improved Hornets' roster.
Better Supporting Cast
While Henderson and Batum shoot a nearly identical percentage from the floor, the real difference comes in three-point shooting. Throughout his career, Henderson has averaged only 1.6 attempts per 36 minutes while making only 31 percent. To the contrary, Batum launches over five attempts per 36 minutes connecting on over 36 percent. Overall the Frenchman's career Offensive Rating (112) blows Henderson's (102) out of the water.
Another offseason acquisition, Jeremy Lamb, has been paying dividends for the Hornets offense as well. A former college teammate of Walker's at UConn, Lamb has fit in perfectly in his role off the bench, as he is shooting over 52 percent from the field while averaging a career-high 12.4 points per game as the Hornets' sixth man.
Add in the 10.8 points per game from Jeremy Lin, the resurgent play of the once highly touted Marvin Williams and the always steady post play of Al Jefferson, and it is clear the 2015-16 Hornets roster is the best collection of offensive talent since the organization's rebirth in 2004-05.
Their 102.5 points per game and 106.0 Offensive Rating rank Charlotte sixth and seventh in the NBA, respectively. They also rank in the top 10 of three-pointers made, 9.6 per game -- a far cry from last season when Charlotte was 26th with just over 6 per game. Walker's maturation into a three-point threat this season has been a revelation in Charlotte as the team evolves into a premier offense in the NBA.
This past offseason, Walker focused on his three-point technique, spending hour after hour in the gym with Hornets shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer. Walker knew that he possessed the range to knock down three-pointers, but what he lacked was consistency.
While averaging over 313 attempts per year during the last three seasons, Walker was only making around 32 percent of his shots, a below league average mark. The point guard was confident he could make shots, but if he could not even connect on an acceptable percentage, he had no reason taking that many shots.
His poor shooting performance was making Walker a one-dimensional scorer. Defenders would sag off him, guarding the dribble penetration and allowing the deep shot. That lack of respect for his long range ability affected how opponents defended Walker on the pick-and-roll as well.
When defending the pick-and-roll, players have two choices, both with their own inherent weaknesses. First, they could go under the screener, leaving them in a better position to defend the drive but more susceptible to a long range jumper. The other option is to fight over or through the pick so that the ball handler has a contested shot. This method leaves the defender vulnerable to being beaten off the dribble.
If you don't respect the ball handler's jump shot (most teams had no reason to respect Walker's jumper), then you would consistently go under the screen, effectively blocking off the lane for the point guard to use his quick first step, reducing the effectiveness of the play for the Hornets the past few years.
This year, with Walker making 43.9 percent of his shot attempts over 25 feet, defenders have to respect the long-distance shot. The newfound success has also helped him to increase the effectiveness of his dribble drives by forcing defenders to go over on pick-and-rolls. The point guard is shooting 55 percent on drives, a nearly 14 percentage point improvement from 2014-15.
Through 17 games, Walker has run the pick and roll 150 times, per NBA.com, as the primary ball handler. The 138 points he has scored on those plays ranks him fourth in the NBA, behind Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard, but ahead of Stephen Curry and Chris Paul, putting him in elite point guard company.
With Walker's shooting improvement coming from close range as well as from behind the arc, expect his offensive breakthrough to continue.
We give the Hornets a 66.6 percent chance of making the playoffs this season, something they have only done twice in the past 11 seasons. With the expectation that Walker sustains his lofty shooting stats, not only will Charlotte have a genuine shot at making noise this postseason, but also the fifth-year guard could easily find himself suiting up for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game come February.