Tyler Davis, Sporting News
Kemba Walker was plain tired of losing. The former NCAA champion had won 33 percent of his games during his first four NBA seasons. So he took improving the then-Bobcats into his own hands.
Through a mutual agent, Walker recruited Al Jefferson, one of the biggest free agents of 2013, to Charlotte. He tried to make fellow New Yorker Lance Stephenson feel at home for a season. After that mess, he played a big role in helping new guards Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb and Jeremy Lin find their comfort zones this year.
In the process, Walker has turned Charlotte basketball around. A city that saw a 7-59 season followed by a 21-61 season now has a Hornets squad that has is in position for a playoff run for the second time in three years. Besides wins, Charlotte also has another nice bragging piece — a potential All-Star in Walker.
The diminutive guard out of the University of Connecticut has changed with the team and is in the midst of by far his most efficient season. His 18.5 points a game is a career best, but the more important numbers are his shooting percentages: 44.2 percent from the field (up from 38.5 percent last season) and 36.6 percent on 3-pointers (from 30.4 percent). He is fifth among Eastern Conference point guards in Player Efficiency Rating and sixth in Real Plus-Minus.
But don’t talk to Walker about accolades. When asked if he realized he was an All-Star candidate he replied, “Really? Am I?”
“It’s still really early to tell,” Walker told Sporting News last month. “I don’t think about stuff like that, man. I always think I’m as good as a lot of other point guards in this league. But you know, it’s all about playing well, it’s all about being consistent and it’s all about winning.”
The efficiency is new. The consistent trait, though, is Walker’s passion for success. He takes losing hard, teammates say, turning a quick-witted, funny guy to quiet contemplation. Last season was difficult.
“He don’t like to lose,” Jefferson said. “Last year, we got a bit of a taste in our mouth. Now we got the goons, we got the right group of guys with the right coaching staff that’s clicking.”
A big addition has been Batum, the starting shooting guard brought in via an offseason trade with the Trail Blazers. Batum’s playmaking ability has freed up Walker, whose usage rate is at a career low, to be more efficient. Batum and Lin both allow Walker to play off the ball, too.
Conversely, Walker’s scoring on nights like Monday, when he torched the Lakers for 38 points, allows Batum to play through poor shooting nights. Hornets coach Steve Clifford touts both his guards, understanding that neither could be in this position without the other.
“I think they both do,” Clifford said recently. “I think Kemba has played at an All-Star level most nights, also. It’s pretty early I would say, I mean, but I think both of those guys have to be at their positions definitely so far worthy of being included. I haven’t looked at the other guys or anything, but I think they both have played All-Star caliber basketball.”
Batum was overshadowed by a talented, playoff-tested roster in Portland. But everyone knew the talent was there. For Walker, the transformation has been more complex. It’s been about recognizing his faults and working on them. He spent the summer with new Hornets shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer, aiming to force defenses to stick with him on the perimeter.
“Just to see where he’s at now … he’s made tremendous strides,” said Wizards guard Ramon Sessions, who played with Walker two seasons ago. “He’s always one of those guys who were in the gym, working hard, working on his shot because people said he couldn’t shoot it. He’s just proving everybody wrong.”
Lamb, who played with Walker during their 2011 championship season at UConn, can see the difference, too.
“It’s definitely a different game, but he’s still the same in terms of being a leader, getting the team going. Now he’s a better shooter,” Lamb said, pausing as Walker got dressed near his locker, “a way better shooter. He can shoot the NBA 3 now, and when he first got in the league, he couldn’t do that. That wasn’t a part of his game that he had. Right now, he hits big shots for us. He works extremely hard, getting better and better every year.”
When he first broke into the league, defenders didn’t want to allow him to break their ankles. This season, he is earning respect on pull-up shots, too. That opens up the court for a team that spent the offseason stressing — and acquiring — 3-point shooting.
That shooting also has allowed Walker to get to the paint “nearly every possession,” Clifford said, exploiting the open interior. Walker and Lin, who doubles as a backup point guard and crunch-time shooting guard, both average more than seven drives per game — more, for instance, than star point guards Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Mike Conley.
“He can create his own shot no matter who is on him,” said Wizards All-Star John Wall, one of the best defensive and best driving point guards in the NBA.
That’s been true for years and is why so few around Walker are surprised by his ascent.
Jefferson emphasized his point guard’s killer instinct, the one that drew so much attention at Connecticut and has overshadowed his generously listed 6-1 frame.
That instinct still has Clifford leaning heavily on Walker down the stretch of close games. Walker leads the team by scoring 5.4 points per fourth quarter, and he’s doing it on 45.5 percent shooting, 38.2 percent on 3-pointers. That is particularly important because Batum and Lin, who often join him on the court for those minutes, are under 40 percent from the field in fourth quarters.
“As little as that guy is, man, he’s got the heart of a lion,” Hornets forward Marvin Williams said. “He truly is a leader, and he really is fun to watch. He goes out there, and you don’t know if Kemba is up 20 or down 20, that’s how hard he plays.”
It seems as the moments get bigger, Walker performs better. It’s not just the numbers that say it, but it’s the leadership he shows it. The way he carries himself shows it.
Amid questions about team expectations and All-Star predictions, Walker just worries about victories.
“I’m just trying to play well and just win. That’s all I’m focused on right now,” he said. “Working on my game, that comes in the summer. Right now, I’m trying to be consistent in my play, keep trying to shoot the ball well and try to get my teammates involved. That’s about it.”