Kemba Walker has enough talent to put himself among the crop of good point guards in the NBA. Maybe not on the same level as Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook or Kyrie Irving, but now that Chris Paul is ageing, they are probably on a similar pedestal alongside Mike Conley, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry and John Wall. These players are incredible, but you could argue that each of those latter names are not good enough to build around. None of them have had any great success in achieving regular Conference Finals appearances or winning 50 games each season as a leading man. It almost feels like they would be better off as being the secondary explosive talent on an elite team.
But not every team is elite, so they are left with a tough question: whether it is nobler to suffer the shots of the best teams while paying a not-quite-great point guard, or let him go and restart the franchise with someone who can lead you to a championship?
Walker is a free agent at the end of this season, so Charlotte needs to figure out if it wants to re-sign him (and, if so, for how much) or let the point guard go. With him at the helm, this Hornets team has made the playoffs just twice in seven years, and people had started to question whether he might not be good enough to build around. However, Walker’s performance at the start of this 2018-2019 campaign is making those same people think twice – maybe he is talented enough to drag a team to the next level.
To build around Kemba
He has been pretty durable during his career, only playing fewer than 70 games twice in his seven years. He has also improved each season. The past three years he has upped his three point shooting percentage from the low 30s to around 38%. This has helped him average higher than 20 points per game every year since 2015, during which period he is also managing well above 55% in true shooting percentage (this adds up two-pointers, three-pointers and free-throws).
So far this season, he has taken this to another level. He became one of a select few players in NBA history to make at least 21 threes in his first four games – the last person to do it was Stephen Curry during his last MVP season. In total, he has taken 54 shots from distance so far and made 24 of them – good for his highest three-point percentage of his career at 44%.
But numbers don’t do Walker justice. To see this man play is like watching early career Derrick Rose, or a ballerina, or one of those gymnasts that hang from the two hoop things and contort their bodies into angles that aren’t meant for humans and they just… hold it there. Walker does this while flying towards the rim after beating one defender, leaps and flies past another, then gets bumped by a third, and yet he remains in the air and manages to finish the layup.
This type of play is not rare. There were 10 other plays like this during Toronto’s thrashing of Charlotte on Monday night. However, the game was one where Walker struggled. He still managed 26 points against one of the scariest defensive teams in the league, partly because of the Raptors’ length, which is something that still gives the Hornets’ guard issues. On one three-point attempt, Pascal Siakam started from within the semi-circle at the top of the key and still made it out to the 6’1 Walker (on a tall day) to block it.
Despite this, he is still shooting 47% in total this season, and part of it is because defenders have to sag off him slightly because of Walker’s ability to break down the first line of defense. He can then score using a deadly mid-range floater – probably the best in the league – or an athletic layup.
He is also a great passer – an underrated part of his game. It might be because he is a score-first point guard, or perhaps because he’s only averaging 5 assists per game for his career, but his lack of height doesn’t stop him spotting gaps few others in the league are able to.
Not to build around Kemba
The only area where his game is lacking is on defense. There are several reasons for his weakness on this end if the floor. The first is that Walker carries a huge load offensively. Around 33% of Charlotte’s plays are built around him, which is good for fifth in the league. When you compare this to other players in the league, his usage rate is in keeping with the likes of James Harden.
Another reason for his weakness on defense is that he isn’t always paying attention. Occasionally, when his opponents are on a fast break, he will just go directly to the player he is man marking regardless of what threat he poses, and won’t be aware of the open player when Walker is the closest defender.
It is also partly to do with the Hornets’ defensive system. Head Coach James Borrego mainly runs a man-to-man defensive set but Walker switches with almost every player to stay in a guard’s defensive spot at the top of the key, almost like a zone defense. Meanwhile, his teammates are chasing around screens, picking up the bigger offensive threats while Walker idles around uninterested.
This is the element that separates Curry from every other point guard in the league. He is on the top step offensively, but he is also pretty good defensively. He is not as strong as players like Walker or Lowry, but Curry can position himself to make defenders choose a weaker option, and he has long enough arms to disrupt dribbles and get into passing lanes.
That being said, when Walker’s assignment is a threat with the ball, just as Siakam was in the low post on Monday, most teams feel they have a mismatch and dump the ball down for their offensive player to go to work. However, he is sneaky strong and very savvy. Most of the time, Walker will not cede his position and can often cause a turnover. The best thing for an offensive player to do during this situation is to take one dribble back and shoot over the top of Walker, but so many make the mistake of trying to back him down.
However, being weak on defense does not make or break an elite guard – you only have to ask Harden or Westbrook that.
It is still early in this NBA season, so the averages of 31 points will drop off once we’re well past the four game mark. However, the best of the best don’t accept any regression. And in an important contract year, Walker might need to show the world that he is on that next level.
He is unlikely to reach a the Eastern Conference Finals this year, but if he can reach the playoffs and show up in a big way, the Hornets might realise that Walker is indeed the player to build around. They just have to convince him to stay first.