Jeff Zillgitt, USA Today
Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker made a slight adjustment to his jump shot. As he brought the basketball up to shoot, he moved the ball just a few inches to his right, away from his face.
Sounds like a simple change. But it’s not, not when a player has been shooting that way for years.
“It was tough especially early on when I wasn’t making shots during the summer,” Walker said. “I said, ‘I can’t do it. I’m going back to my old shot.’ I was having doubts.”
But Hornets shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer, who identified the flaw and revealed it to Walker through film, encouraged the pupil to stick with the new shot.
“I had a few games early in the season where the shot felt so good, and I just stuck with it,” Walker said.
The proof is in the percentages. Walker is shooting career-highs from the field (42.9%) and three-pointers (37.1%, up from 30.4% last season) and averaging career-highs in points (21), rebounds (4.5).
Walker, 26, is a major reason why the Hornets are 41-30 and have been one of the hottest teams in the league since Feb. 1. Though he didn’t make the All-Star team, he is having an All-Star season
“The first thing is that he’s playing with more skilled teammates. People don’t always take that into consideration. The space on the floor that you have to play with is determined by your teammates,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of an improved Hornets roster.
Clifford then pointed to the work Walker did with Kreutzer on his shot and assistant coach Steve Hetzel on his pick-and-roll game.
“In the summer, he was so diligent about it and then he’s continued it through the year. He worked so hard, and it’s paying off,” Clifford said.
Kreutzer said Walker’s elbow flared out on his old shot and led to an inconsistent result – missing either right or left. Tucking the elbow in before the release – to form that V that shooting coaches stress – leads to “angle that’s going to be conducive to making baskets using the whole 18-inch cylinder,” Kreutzer said.
“It’s not a minor thing when you think about just moving it over a little bit. It was his work ethic – shooting hundreds and hundreds of shots a day and not just shooting them for volume but shooting them for quality. When you get more comfortable, that becomes the norm. He was willing to make those corrections. He wholeheartedly bought into it.”
When Walker wasn’t in the gym repairing his shot, he was with Hetzel, perfecting the art of the pick-and-roll.
The Hornets use the pick-and-roll often, sixth-most in the league, and rank sixth in points per possessions (.86) on that play. That’s up from .83 points per possession in 2014-15 and .79 in 2013-14. Walker runs pick-and-rolls 46.4% of the time and ranks sixth among point guards in points per 100 possessions (.89), according to nba.com/stats.
Using his speed and ball-handling ability, Walker already was solid in this area but refining his pick-and-roll game made him more effective.
“He knows how to freeze his defender and that allows the defender to be screened, and it creates so much separation at the point of the screen. That creates the whole advantage of the pick-and-roll. That’s where he’s gotten so much better,” Hetzel said.
His improved shot also makes him a better pick-and-roll player. If a point guard can’t shoot from the outside, defenders just sag and go under the pick, which negates the point guard’s ability to drive past the defense.
But with Walker making shots, the defender sometimes has to go over the screen, which allows Walker to use his speed and drive to the basket where he can pass or shoot. Options are a point guard’s friend.
“He has a natural flow to the way he plays and puts a lot of pressure on his defender,” Hetzel said. “They’re always on edge not knowing what moves he’s going to make. He has the ability to make them pay for what they decide.
“Nothing is more important than the work he did with Bruce. Changing his shot allowed his pick-and-roll game to completely open up because of the difference in the way teams have to guard him.”