Only a handful of transcendent NBA superstars are talented enough to run an entire offense. The shortlist includes Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and James Harden. Their respective coaches run entire schemes towards their strengths.
It’s time to add Kemba Walker to that prestigious list.
The 28-year-old point guard is averaging 25.8 points and 6.2 assists with a career-high 57.2 true shooting percentage. He’s dragged Charlotte to a 12-13 record in the Eastern Conference. His best game—a 60-point, seven-assist, four-steal performance against the Philadelphia 76ers—wasn’t enough to top one of the East’s best teams.
What more can he do?
Four years ago, Walker had just signed a four-year, $48 million extension with the Hornets. The franchise was coming off one of of the worst stretches for any NBA team in history, as the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats went 7-59 during the strike-shortened campaign.
Infamously, Charlotte players plodded into the home locker room after one of those 59 losses. Per ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Walker’s teammates heard him rage, “We can’t keep f*cking losing…We’ve got to be better than this! I’m tired of this losing sh*t!”
Veteran forward and former teammate Gerald Henderson recalls. “Kemba’s in tears. It was like, ‘Damn, this sh*t really matters to him. This cat cares.”
Kemba Walker has always been an emotional player, but now he’s harnessed that emotion to improve.
Working on His Game
Since his rookie season, Walker has had four head coaches and hasn’t once played with another star, unless 2014 Al Jefferson counts. (Nope. Not really.) He’s steadily improved while the rest of his organization slowly crept into mediocrity.
Charlotte’s then head coach Steve Clifford hired coach Steve Hetzel during the 2014 offseason. He is one of many assistants who would shape Walker into the dynamic scorer he is today.
According to Jeff Zilgit of USA Today, Hetzel taught Walker what he called his “pick-and-roll setup game,”—the action before the action. Instead of having him mindlessly dribbling straight into screens, Hetzel showed him how to use ball-fakes and twitches to fool defenders into taking the wrong angle in pick and roll coverage.
During the 2015 offseason, the Hornets brought on Bruce Kreutzer as a shooting coach. Kreutzer counseled Walker to shift his release point slightly to the right. He also noticed Walker shot from his heels. He wanted Walker to run on the balls of his feet and his toes, consequently forcing him to shoot almost while leaning forward. It created a more fluid and consistent form.
Walker’s shooting percentages and shot selection have improved markedly. He’s actually cut his midrange attempts in half, from 47 percent in his rookie year, to 26 percent now. Contrarily, his 3-point attempts have jumped from 26 percent his rookie year to 42 percent this season.
The Offensive Maestro
Under the helm of first-year head coach James Borrego, the Hornets offense has evolved this season. Borrego worked under Gregg Popovich for a decade. His offensive philosophy has been simple, yet clear. Get Kemba Walker the ball, have him come off screens and spread pick and rolls. So far, it’s worked like a charm.
Sometimes Coach Borrego runs a double screen action at the top, leaving one man to pop out and one to cut. Here the defense just lets Walker throw in an easy layup.
If the pick-and-roll coverage decides to switch but leave Kemba room, he can easily pull up and hit a wide-open shot from deep.
Kemba is an excellent off-ball scoring threat as well. Here he comes off a well-timed screen for an easy hit from deep.
Walker has the highest usage percentage of his career (32.5), ranking in the 92nd percentile among guards, according to Cleaning the Glass. He averages 1.16 points per scoring attempt, (86th percentile among guards). This scoring efficiency at such a high usage isn’t realistic over an entire season. Yet, the simple gravity he creates by having the ball in his hands isn’t going away anytime soon.
He has excellent vision and his presence gravitate defenders toward him, allowing kick outs like this.
Here, Kemba finds Cody Zeller off of a pick and roll action for a smooth dunk.
Walker’s has a 29.6 assist percentage, (73rd percentile among guards). All of these stats are career highs. He collects the majority of his assists scoring out of transition or bringing up the ball, finding open shooters or cutters with ease.
Walker draws fouls on 12.1 percent of his shot attempts (89th percentile). He’s averaging 6.5 free throw attempts every game and hits 82 percent from the line. He’s excellent at creating opportunities and getting fouled, regardless of his ability to shoot efficiently at the rim.
His elite ability to create separation off the dribble rivals his craftiness and touch around the rim. Walker compensates for his lack of speed and size by suddenly changing directions in milliseconds, forcing engaged ball-handlers to guess and lose their momentum.
In typical fashion, Walker prances through the interior of the defense and throws in a beauty of a reverse:
“He’s incredible. This is a special player, a special performance and a special start to an NBA season,” Hornets Head Coach James Borrego told NBA.com. “Every team is locked in on him. Every scouting report, he’s the number one guy. They put the best defender on him, and they have two or three bodies on him every single time, and this guy continues to produce for us. He does whatever it takes for us to win.
Yes, Walker is an official member of the professional scorer squad.
Walker’s size does hurt his defensive capabilities. Standing at only 6’1″ and 180 pounds, he’s often bullied by larger point guards. Teams like to switch a big on to him in the pick and roll, abusing his size disadvantage.
His increased offensive role may be slowly burning him out as well. Borrego must continue to give Walker nights off for the Hornets to rely on him, especially come a hypothetical 8th seed race this Spring. Since scoring 103 points against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics on November 17th and 19th respectively, Walker has led the team in scoring just twice in the last 9 games. During that span, he’s shot only 37 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3.
Walker is in a contract year, and the Hornets have his Bird rights. If he makes an All-NBA team, he’ll become eligible for a five-year, “supermax” $220 million contract.
He has been outspoken about his desire to stay in Charlotte. General Manager Mitch Kupchak is very unlikely to trade Walker away as a rental. He wouldn’t be a 25-point scorer in an offensive system where he plays second fiddle. So Kupchak will likely have to find a legitimate second scorer, perhaps a dominant big man to run in Walker’s already deadly pick and roll game.
Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star forward Kevin Love would be an interesting fit. He’s a near-ideal pick and roll partner to deploy with Walker and open up the playbook for Coach Borrego.
Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer said Koby Altman and his staff aren’t currently interested in Love unless they are “blown away” by an offer. Nonetheless, the Cavaliers are looking to dump as many contracts as possible for future draft picks and assets. If Kupchak throws in enough future first round picks, that could be a viable option for Charlotte to chase after.
Otto Porter of the Washington Wizards would slot nearly perfectly in Charlotte’s offensive scheme. The Wizards are in rebuild mode as well. His ability to score at high efficiency off of screens and in the post would help take the load off Walker’s offensive responsibility.
Otherwise, the market is quite dry on solid options that are both gettable and specifically helpful. Kupchak may have to wait until this summer’s free agency to re-sign Walker and improve the roster.
“These guys believed in me,” Walker told Lowe. “I couldn’t care less about big markets. That’s not who I am. I want to make this place big. I want to be in the playoffs every year. I want to make Charlotte pop.”
Now it’s time for Charlotte to find him a running mate before his prime fades away.
Austin Hutchinson is a freelance writer who resides in both Southern California and the Chicagoland area. He is also a breaking news writer for Clutch Points. A lifelong Bulls fan, Austin has written for BBallBreakdown, Fan Rag Sports, and NBA Math, among many others.