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Season Report Card: Kemba Walker

PER PER Against (Net)
Kemba Walker 18.9 16.3 (+2.6)

Strengths: Kemba’s season was one long sigh of relief. Drafted in 2011 as one of the bedrocks of Charlotte’s rebuilding effort, his rookie year was a disappointment (in part for reasons beyond his control). The second year was much better.

A lot of that had to do with Walker’s improving efficiency (see Reasons for Optimism), but he also built on his strengths while taking on an expanded role:

— One of Kemba’s best attributes is his ballhandling, and that paid off in multiple ways. For one, he managed to keep his turnovers relatively low, especially given his role on the team, heavy minutes and a high usage rate. It also helped him put up points: According to MySynergySports.com, the pick-and-roll made up the largest percentage of his scoring plays, and his .87 points per possession was good for 32nd in the league. He also showed improvement in isolation, where Synergy rated him 85th among qualifying players. That gave the Bobcats a decently reliable one-on-one creator that it’s lacked in the past. It also led to some memorable moments.

— Walker still has a ways to go as a defender, but he has active hands and a good sense of timing. He was top-five in total steals, and top-10 in steal percentage among qualifying players. For a team that relied heavily on the fast break, Kemba’s ability to force turnovers came in handy.

— This is an underrated strength: Walker has proven to be very durable, and hasn’t missed a game in his two-year career. The streak continued this season despite a significant increase in playing time. Kemba saw 673 more minutes than his next-closest teammate, the equivalent of 14 48-minute games.

Kemba’s raw totals show off the impact increased playing time and consistent health can have. Walker played the 18th-most minutes in the league, which translated to the 15th-most points, 4th-most steals, 14th-most free throws made, and 19th-most assists. Looking at totals like that isn’t an especially accurate way of measuring a player’s impact on a game-by-game basis, but staying on the floor is its own talent. It also reflects just how heavy of a load Walker was carrying this year.

Weaknesses: Defense is Walker’s most glaring flaw; he’s always going to be undersized for the position, and he doesn’t have the strength to consistently fight through screens. As the team builds an identity on that end and improves their post defense, this will hopefully become less of an problem. A well-coached team can get by with subpar one-on-one defense from their point guard.

— This isn’t necessarily a “weakness,” but Walker has been an average passer so far. His assist percentage was 19th-best among qualifying players, comparable to point guards like Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and Ty Lawson. He’s decent enough that his passing isn’t a liability, but he didn’t show much growth this year, either. One thing that could help is acquiring a few more spot-up shooters; it’s hard to drive and kick when there’s no one to kick to. Similarly, Kemba didn’t have a good player to run the pick-and-roll with until Josh McRoberts showed up. As the team improves, it’ll be interesting to see how Walker’s passing game evolves.

Reasons For Optimism: Here’s the big one: Kemba’s field-goal percentage rose from a depressing 36.6 percent to a solid 42.3 percent. That’s about league-average for point guards (43 percent, according to Hoopdata.com). He accomplished it in two ways:

First, Walker improved his FG% on mid-range attempts from 35.0 to 43.4 percent. Kemba relied heavily on that shot, so it was an important development if he’s going to become half-way efficient.

Second, Walker did a better job at getting to the rim. Everyone loves charts, right? Here’s Kemba’s shot distribution in 2011-12:

And here’s 2012-13:

Kemba shifted nearly 10 percent of his shots to within eight feet of the basket. In short, this year Walker took better attempts and improved at the ones he already relied on. That’s a formula for solid (and hopefully sustainable) growth.

— This could be less of a reason for optimism and more of a statistical quirk, but Kemba was much, much better at home than on the road. More charts:

This gist is that Kemba scored more, and much more efficiently, when he was in Charlotte.

For reference, the league averages 45.95 percent from the field at home and 44.60 percent away. That’s a difference of 1.35 percent; Walker shot 6.6 percent better at home. The biggest shift was his three-point shooting, where he went from terrible on the road (26.8 percent) to very good at home (37.8 percent).

Like I said, this could just be randomness in the numbers. But if Kemba can get over his road jitters and find a consistent, high-percentage three-point stroke, it’d go a long way towards making him a complete offensive player.

Reasons For Pessimism: Kemba’s biggest strength is his mid-range game, and he didn’t develop much as a long-range shooter. That ultimately limits his efficiency, and in the short term created some major spacing issues while playing next to Ramon Sessions, Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. If he can’t improve on his three-pointers, he’ll top out as a relatively inefficient volume scorer.

It’s also unclear how Walker will play in a more structured offense. Dunlap’s system allowed him to dominate the ball for long stretches, and didn’t feature much ball movement. The year before was similarly chaotic. If the incoming coach installs an offense that requires Walker to be more of a spot-up shooter, he could see his production deflate.

I’m trying to end these recaps on a positive note, so here you go: even if Kemba doesn’t pan out to be a long-term starter, he seems like a legitimate NBA player. You can’t complain too much about a solid contributor with a few elite skills, good potential and a strong work ethic (though I’m sure some will try).