Jared Zwerling, NBPA
Since 2014, Charlotte has been making a lot of noise off the court with its rebranding back to the Hornets, and announcing at the All-Star Game in Toronto that the city will host next year’s festivities.
But on the court, it’s been 14 years since the team has moved past the first round of the playoffs. That could very well change this season.
Since the All-Star break, the Hornets have been buzzing as the hottest team in the Eastern Conference. They’ve gone 13-3 entering March 22, including their second-largest comeback in franchise history on Monday night, upsetting the Spurs, 91-88. At the Hornets’ pace, with 40 total wins that currently places them fifth in the East, they could finish with their best record since 1999-2000, when they were 49-33.
It all starts with Kemba Walker’s career year in his fifth season.
The 6’1″ starting point guard is averaging career highs in points (21.1), rebounds (4.5) and shooting across the board. In fact, he’s one of only six players this season who’s averaging more than 21 points, five assists, four rebounds and one steal per game (according to Basketball-Reference.com). The others include All-Stars Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Kyle Lowry and Russell Westbrook.
“I think it’s a real testament to all the hard work he’s done over the last few years, and in particular this past summer,” Hornets GM Rich Cho told the NBPA. “He was here in Charlotte in the gym a ton [last summer], and just really working hard on all his aspects of his game, especially working on his long-range shooting with our shooting coach, Bruce Kreutzer. It’s also a testament to his teammates, it’s a testament to the coaching staff and I really think he should be considered highly for the Most Improved Player award.”
Working with Kreutzer, who was hired last July after being a consultant to the 76ers and helping to establish the Mark Price Shooting Lab in 2006, Walker focused on jumping off the balls of his feet to maintain a consistent up-and-down motion. Then he slightly moved his release point about two inches to the right, so he’d have a clearer path to the basket. He also worked on in-motion and running-into shots, especially from distance. Overall, the emphasis was repetitions from all over the court to elevate his consistency.
“I worked on shooting a lot to make it a high percentage,” Walker, 25, told the NBPA. “I’m shooting the ball as good as I’ve ever shot it in every way—off the dribble, spot ups. Just being able to do it consistently has been the key for me, working out each and every day to make shots in these games.”
Walker has always been super quick and shifty, had one of the best step-back jumpers in the game—”It’s almost just a part of me without even knowing I did it,” he said, laughing—and possessed the special ability to split a trap on the perimeter. Those traits made him a 17-plus-point scorer in previous seasons, mostly as a midrange and penetrating scorer.
So what’s been the big key behind Walker’s improvement in most statistical categories, especially from beyond the arc?
“All the spacing has helped him,” Cho said.
The best examples to demonstrate that are Walker’s shooting spikes by the basket, in the baseline corner and being more open from three-point range. This season, he’s shooting 57.4 percent in the restricted area; in the past, he hovered around 48 percent each season (according to NBA.com/Stats). Whereas in 2014-15 he made 48.6 percent (89-for-183) contested by one defender at the rim, and 41 percent (34-for-83) contested by two or more defenders at the rim, this season he’s at 54.5 percent (104-for-191) against one defender and 52.1 percent (32-for-71) against two more or defenders (according to Cho; stats through March 6).
That shows that more defenses, because of the Hornets’ improved spacing, are having to step out further to the perimeter to guard the three-point line, leaving more space for Walker inside to finish. After shooting a league-worst 31.8 percent from downtown last season, the team is now at an eighth-best 35.8 percent—and its proportion of points that are three-pointers is second only to the Warriors (according to NBA.com/Stats).
“Being able to make the three ball consistently now, it just makes things a lot easier for me, and it also opens things up for my teammates,” Walker said. “I’m able to see the floor a lot better as well.”
With defenses having to rotate more against the Hornets, that’s enabled Walker to get more looks from the baseline corner, an area that is usually the end of result of great spacing and ball movement. Whereas in the past Walker usually made seven corner threes each season, he’s now at 17 this season with about a month of games left. Overall, he’s shooting and making more uncontested threes. After finishing 63-for-186 (33.9 percent) in that category in 2014-15, Walker is at 98-for-254 (38.6 percent) this season (according to Cho; stats through March 6).
Last offseason, the Hornets made a concerted effort to improve offensively after finishing third-last in points per game (94.2). Adding playmakers Nicolas Batum, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lin and Jeremy Lamb has helped the team increase its scoring to 103 points per game. They also protect the ball, averaging 12.8 turnovers per game—tied for first in the league. Batum, especially, has been a huge assist for Walker. Because of his pick-and-roll skills and court vision, and height advantage at 6’8″ to pass over many defenders, Batum frequently facilitates the offense with Walker off the ball.
In his career, Walker has never had a unique secondary point guard like Batum, who has assisted him on more than 59 makes (according to NBA.com/Stats). Batum, who’s averaging career highs in points (15.0) and dishes (5.7)—the latter being the second-highest per game this season for a player 6’8″ and taller (LeBron James is first at 6.5)—can post and draw a double team. He also has an effective head fake that creates space for himself and others to get open looks.
“Nic loves to pass,” Walker said. “We just have a lot of unselfish guys, and in order for us to get shots and get good shots, we’re going to have to move the basketball. So we try to be unselfish each and every night, and we try to find each other so we can get the best shot possible. Teams are definitely trapping me a lot and blitzing me and making me get rid of the ball much more. But I think that’s helping us. I’m getting better with just learning how to draw two defenders, and getting rid of the basketball and have my teammates make the play. So we’ve been really good at that.”
In addition, Al Jefferson’s extended missed time this season because of injuries—a strained left calf and then surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee—has been a blessing in disguise for the Hornets. Cody Zeller became the starting center, instilling more speed to the basket and spread-out spacing in the Hornets’ high pick-and-roll along with Walker. And the team started to utilize stretch 4 Marvin Williams or Frank Kaminsky in double pick-and-rolls with Zeller, with him rolling and one of the two shooters popping.
Then when Jefferson, a longtime starter and 20-and-10 player, returned for the first game after the All-Star break, he came off the bench and since then has taken advantage of second units, averaging 11.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in 21.8 minutes per game in March. That unique balance in strategy—going from a dominant point guard to a seasoned big-man sub, basically creating two different half-court offensive styles—has made the Hornets one of the hardest teams to defend, benefiting Walker. Through the Hornets’ 13-3 recent record, the team’s floor leader has had a plus-6.5 plus-minus; before the All-Star break, only plus-1.1.
“When Al’s in the game, he definitely makes things a lot easier for us, and he gives us another dimension scoring,” Walker said. “He’s always one of the better post-up players in our league, so we love to go to him for him to get us a basket. And it just makes it tough I think because when I throw the ball into Al, and I’m on the same side as him now, it’s hard for my man to play off me or it’s hard for my man to go double team, because I am shooting the ball pretty well right now. I think it makes it difficult for teams to really double team off him—and not just me; all of us are shooting the ball pretty well right now. So we love for teams to go in and double team Al, so he can make the plays.”
Cho reflected back to October 2014 when the Hornets re-signed Walker to a four-year, $48 million extension. There was something that made Cho believe Walker would only get better.
“I always got the feeling that Kemba wasn’t going to stay put and be satisfied,” Cho said. “He’s very competitive. He’s still going to improve and I don’t think he’s in his prime yet. I always got the feeling that he wanted to keep improving, he wants to be a great player. Those are the kind of guys that you want to build around. And the other thing, too, is he’s very team oriented. He wants to help this team get to a championship level.”
Lin added on NBA TV after beating the Spurs, “Kemba has been my biggest supporter since I showed up here. Talk about a guy, in my opinion, should have definitely made the All-Star team, and he’s our go-to guy. He’s so down to earth, he’s so normal and humble, and so for him to step up and vocally cheer for other players the way he has all season, that’s all about what buying in means.”
Cho noted that Walker has also been more vocal this season with his teammates, who all have similar qualities. They’re ones that Cho, owner Michael Jordan, coach Steve Clifford and their front-office staff evaluate when building the roster.
“When we look for players, we look for guys that have a strong work ethic, guys that are really competitive, high-character guys and guys that are great teammates. And I think all of those things are conducive to winning,” Cho said. “We’ve got a great group of guys that work hard and like each other and pull for each other, and they don’t care who gets the credit. So I think that’s great.”
Off the court, Walker is starting to plan for his two youth camps he’ll be hosting this summer in Charlotte and New York. “Those are the two things that I really get excited about in the summer time,” he said. “This is my third year doing both camps, so it’s going to be exciting. I look forward to seeing how much some of these kids have grown.”
But in the meantime, Walker’s priority is leading his squad to the playoffs for the first time in two years. That’s “the main goal,” he said. With the Hornets’ depth at full strength, including last month’s acquisition of Courtney Lee who brings additional shooting and defense, they have the pieces in place to make a postseason run.
“Since All-Star, our intensity each and every night has just gone up more and more, and we’re getting better every day,” Walker said. “I’m loving the way we’re playing.”