A funny thing happened in Miami a few weeks ago. With the Hornets leading the Heat by one and 0.5 seconds left in the game, Kemba Walker missed the second of his two free throws on purpose, a perfectly soft shank off the right side of the rim that retired the last ticks off the clock before the Heat could gather the rebound and call a timeout.
It was a smart play. Nothing genius, but smart. What made it funny was that on a night when Walker had surpassed the 10,000-point mark for his career, a night when he’d broken Steph Curry’s NBA record by making 19 3-pointers through the first three games of the season, the first thing everybody wanted to ask about was a shot he had missed.
“It messed up my 40 points,” Walker laughed.
Walker was joking, obviously. But technically he was right. He’d just hung 39 points on Miami. This after scoring 67 points through Charlotte’s first two games. Fast forward to now, and he’s the second-leading scorer in the league at 30.1 points a game entering Wednesday, trailing only Curry’s 32.5 mark. And yet, somehow, you still don’t hear all that much about him.
It’s been this way all of Walker’s basketball life, or certainly his NBA life. Small guy in a small market. Easy to overlook. He gets it. And he’s OK with it. He knows how big his game is, how hard he works, how far he’s come from that six-foot-nothing Superman who led UConn on one of the most magical national championship runs in NCAA Tournament history. It’s enough for him that the people who count, the ones who really pay attention, know what he’s all about. His coaches, his teammates, opposing players and coaches, they all rave about him. They universally refer to him as one of the league’s most underrated stars.
“He’s remarkable,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told CBS Sports. “He’s one of those guys you’d pay to watch play, juts because he’s so different.”
It’s true. You just don’t see a lot of players like Kemba. Not with that kind of fight, that kind of skill at that size. If we’re being honest, you probably have to go back to Allen Iverson to find an equivalent, and man is that saying something. Nobody put on a better show than A.I. Nobody. And Walker, indeed, has always been a great showman. But he hasn’t always been a great player. That took time.
When Walker first got into the league back in 2011, he was a lightning-quick water bug who would out-compete anyone but couldn’t shoot a lick. Three of his first four years he fell short of 40 percent from the field. He was low-30s from three. That’s when he went to work. He got with then-Hornets shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer, and later shooting legend Mark Price, who described the work that had to be done on Walker’s shooting mechanics as relatively minor.
“Arthroscopic surgery,” was how Price described to CBS Sports the tweaks that were made to Walker’s form. “Whereas with a guy like, say, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, it’s more like open-heart surgery.”
Kidd-Gilchrist, to Price’s point, is just never going to be a feared shooter. He’s a good player, an athlete, a strong defender who can guard one through four (probably one through five in a pinch) and played 17 straight minutes in Charlotte’s aforementioned win over Miami. But as a shooter, incremental improvements are likely the limit. With Walker, the sights were higher. You could see he had the foundation for much bigger strides. Kreutzer suggested that Walker move his shooting pocket slightly to the right, bringing the ball up in more of a straight line, and that he alter his footwork. Specifically, he wanted Walker to launch from the balls of his feet, rather than from his heels, almost a springing action. This was done in an effort to improve Walker’s balance, while also speeding up the pace of his shot — not just the release, but the whole action, from the ground up.
Notice Walker on the balls of his feet on this shot below, and how quickly he’s into his shooting motion off the dribble:
“You’ve got to get [your shot] off fast in today’s game,” said Kreutzer, who is now with the Orlando Magic. “Kemba knew defenders were going to keep going under screens on him. He had to be able to knock down those shots. He bought into the methodologies, but then you have to put in the work. Kemba is a great worker. He put in the time. And it certainly has paid off.”
To Kreutzer’s point, Walker has gone from a 30-percent 3-point shooter his rookie season to a career-high 41.1 percent this season. That is an astronomical leap. “It’s changed my life,” said Walker, who has become virtually impossible to guard as a true dual threat. Suddenly, you can’t go under those screens anymore because he’ll drill a three faster than you can call for help. But you can’t guard him close, either, because then he’ll do this to you:
“There just aren’t many players that can go from point A to point B like Kemba,” Kreutzer said. “Now that he’s making that shot, he’s got you. That’s what made him what he is.”
What he is, to be clear, is a rightful MVP candidate. If the season were to end today, you’d be hard pressed to find even three more deserving winners. But the harsh reality is he’ll never get that kind of recognition until the Hornets become a better team. Make the playoffs, at least, as Nicolas Batum sees it. “You look at all the other big-name point guards, Westbrook, Kyrie, Steph, Dame [Lillard], those guys are in the playoffs year after year. They’re always on that stage. For Kemba to get up there with those guys, we have to win. We have to get in the top eight and play in playoff games.”
This is not asking too much. The bottom five seeds in the East are up for grabs, and the Hornets are better than you probably think. Last year they won 36 games but had the statistical profile of a 42-win team. They just didn’t win the close ones as they lost 12 games by five points or fewer. This season, they’re on the nail-biter track again. Among their eight games (they are 4-4 entering Wednesday), four have finished within a two-point margin, and they have lost three of those. We’re talking about one basket here, one defensive stop there. They have been in just about every game down the stretch. But being competitive in a game and winning a game are two very different things in the NBA
I talked to Hornets coach James Borrego at length about this during the offseason. When he got the job, he immediately started thinking of ways they could get better in the fourth quarter. He knew teams were sitting on Kemba, so he’s taken him off the ball some this year, put multiple playmakers alongside him, and the Hornets are now coming at you from all angles. It’s working. The Hornets have the second-ranked offense in the league (third-best in fourth quarters), per NBA.com, and they have the seventh-best net rating — which, just like last season, should equate to a better record than they currently have.
Here’s the problem: One of the main reasons Charlotte has been so good offensively, particularly in the fourth quarter, is because it’s playing super-small lineups that can run and shoot like crazy but have to defend much bigger lineups on the other end. In Charlotte’s season-opening two-point loss to the Bucks, Walker, listed very generously at 6-1, found himself guarding 6-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo straight up. Give the guy credit. He held his own. But matchups like these take their toll. The Hornets have the 23rd ranked fourth-quarter defense.
As currently constructed, the Hornets are not going to suddenly turn into some lock-down defensive team. Borrego is likely going to keep running these smaller lineups out there because he loves the shooting and spacing. He told me this summer he wants four 3-point shooters on the court whenever possible, and he’s held true to that. They’re going to scrap and claw defensively, but the real truth is they’re going to go as far as Walker can carry them, particularly in crunch time.
This is where four-time NBA champion Tony Parker comes in. He’s been the focal point of an offense for a lot of years. He knows the demands of being the guy with the ball in his hands for the bulk of a game, the guy the defense is keying on. He is constantly talking talking with Kemba, teaching, reminding.
“[Kemba] is playing unbelievable,” Parker told CBS Sports. “He’s at the point of his career where he’s made the All-Star team twice, so what I try to bring to him is just all the experience I have gained. How to manage other guys on the team. When to shoot, when to pass. When to be aggressive. And managing fourth quarters. Managing his energy [for late in games]. Because he’s going hard all the time. [We] talk about saving yourself for when we need him the most in the fourth quarter.”
“Having Tony here, he’s helping me read the game in a whole different light,” Walker said. “Just reading the game one play to the next. We watch a lot of film together, and he’s just changing my whole thought process about the game.”
This is a scary thought — a fully matured Kemba Walker, a guy who can kill you with his skills and his mind. Listen to people around the Hornets, and you’ll hear a lot of talk about Kemba being more organized. Not playing so randomly. Always having a plan for what he’s doing, when and where he’s attacking. He’s in control of every aspect of his game, he’s supremely confident, and he’s lifted the Hornets to a level they could not go without him. Now it’s time for them to return the favor.
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