Weight: 184 pounds
Kemba Walker, who’s under contract for the next two seasons at $12 million a year, is Charlotte’s most valuable player. You could even make the argument that he’s the best contract in all the NBA — Walker is the 104th highest-paid player. The 27-year old is coming off a career-year in which he posted career-highs in almost all shooting categories. This production earned him his first All-Star appearance in a guard-heavy East.
Expecting his performance to jump from a season ago — or even maintain — might be wishful thinking. Walker is still, without question, the best player on this roster but what he did last season was incredible. He might not post the same efficiency numbers for the 2017-18 season but his impact on the Hornets will continue to be at a constant high.
Let’s take a look what Kemba is doing right and if we can expect any regression out of the 6-year pro.
Reasons for Optimism:
You could begin almost anywhere with Walker and be enthused about what he’s bringing to the table. After many fans thought Walker couldn’t get any better than his 2015-16 campaign, he turned around and did just that last season.
Let’s start with his shooting, where we encounter the most significant strides. Kemba was no slouch shooting the ball in the 2015-16 season. He shot a solid 43% from the field and on six attempts a game, he shot 37% from behind the arc. Most would have taken those numbers again in 2017-18 and not thought twice about it.
Luckily for Charlotte, Kemba had another year in which his efficiency climbed. He attained the 40% mark from deep while attempting almost two more shots per game. This productivity stretched to all parts of his shooting.
Shooting off-the-dribble is more common in players that dominate the ball and in point guards, like Kemba. It’s a difficult skill to develop — having to shoot while gathering off a dribble is no easy task. Plus, you’re often having to shoot over more limbs compared to spot-up situations. Having said all this, Walker shot the ball extremely well in pull-up situations. Charlotte loved to use him in high pick-and-rolls (sometimes double-high), where he could navigate his way to an easier three-point shot. He shot almost five pull-up threes a game at a 35% clip. If you were to take into account all players that shot at least four pull-up threes a game, Kemba would rank 4th in the NBA in efficiency.
He also did a great job on above-the-break threes — where most of these pull-ups occurred. More often than not, when Kemba would come off those high pick-and-rolls, he would find himself with a better look for three at the top of the key. In players that shot seven or more above-the-break threes, Kemba ranked third behind Curry and Lowry at 39%. For an offense that is predicated on screens, Kemba sure does make the defense pay if they decide to fight through.
If you thought his pull-up stats were impressive, his spot-up numbers are even better. He was tops overall in the NBA in effective field-goal percentage out of catch-and-shoot situations at 70%. His ability to play both on- and off-ball is very encouraging and allows Clifford to experiment with a variety of lineups.
One player that should see decreased minutes with Kemba, because of the acquisition of Dwight Howard, is Cody Zeller. I hope that Clifford finds ways to keep these two on the court together. When Zeller is out there, he not only helps the Hornets but Kemba’s game as well. Zeller screen-setting acumen is a big reason why Walker has had so much success shooting the ball the past two seasons. Between his screens, dribble hand-offs, backdoor passes, Cody assisted Kemba in so many ways. When on the court together, the Hornets had an Offensive Rating of 110.3 and Defensive Rating of 102.8 — both would’ve been good for top-5 in the NBA.
Reasons for Pessimism:
Not sure if there’s a legitimate reason for pessimism, but can we really expect Kemba to sustain this recent production? He’s improved every season he’s played and it’s hard to imagine if he will be able to even maintain the numbers he put up last season. That doesn’t mean he won’t be effective or a borderline All-Star talent, I’m just not sure we can expect this to hold up.
You also have to consider the fact that Kemba is heavily relied upon, game after game. It’s taking a toll on his body as he’s had multiple knee procedures the past couple of seasons. While some may view this as part of the process or precautionary cleanups, I don’t think we can write this off as a non-issue. The hope is that this is minor and won’t hold Kemba back but you have to consider that this could be affecting his longevity in the league.
Although he’s no Kidd-Gilchrist when it comes to reckless and relentless effort, you can still see the grit and resolve when he’s out on the court. He gives up his body for charges, he hustles after loose balls, and he’s taking the ball into the teeth of the defense — avergaed 9.4 drives — more than even before.
Number to Know:
This represents the number of charges drawn by Walker — good for 3rd in the NBA and 1st among guards. For those that question Kemba’s effectiveness on defense, this should tell you all you need to know.
While he’s never going to be a shut-down defender from the point guard position, it’s not because of lack of effort. Those that have watched him over the years will tell you that he’s gotten better on this end of the court. His size will only take him so far in helping him defend his position — he’s generously listed at 6’1″. His positioning, angles, and just overall defensive IQ has improved — at least from the (my) eye-test. He’s definitely not a zero on this end of the court like many star players of the same position.
The charges drawn represent Walker’s attitude and selflessness. He’s going to expend effort on both ends of the court and we need to appreciate that as a fan — it’s a rarity.
Kemba will flourish again this season, it just may not be to the same effectiveness of the 2016-17 season. With the new additions of Howard, Monk, and Carter-Williams, the dynamics of this team will change.
The Hornets can be a better team this season even if Kemba’s numbers drop. I can envision a season in which the Hornets make the playoffs as a 4-6 seed even if Kemba’s points per game dip, he shoots the three-ball 38%, and his overall efficiency numbers are met somewhere in the middle of the past two seasons. It’ll be a successful season for Kemba if he can stay healthy and he leads this team to another playoff berth during his tenure.