Adi Joseph, Sporting News
Kemba Walker listens to his boss.
So when Michael Jordan spoke last week to his struggling Charlotte Hornets, Walker paid attention. Get back to what was working earlier in the season, the majority owner told them. Figure out how to win games despite injuries. Play with enthusiasm — and a chip on your shoulder.
The result: The Hornets won three of four games last week to turn around a 1-9 slide. And Walker scored 34.8 points a game in that stretch, enough to earn the third Eastern Conference Player of the Week award of his career.
“We have a really good relationship, actually. (Jordan) talks to me a lot,” Walker told Sporting News on Monday. “He’s my boss. And he’s one of the better bosses because he’s played the game and understands what we go through on a daily basis. So he helps me a lot. He talks to me and knows when I need to be spoken to and knows when I’m not playing to the best of my ability. He just always knows the right things to say to me. He always gets me back to being me.”
But Walker has changed this season, in the very fabric of who he is on the court. His shooting percentages are better than ever, and his production simply looks different. The Hornets were a mess last season, and Walker’s inefficiency wasn’t helping matters. They made changes to the roster. Walker made changes to his mindset.
“I made a huge point of it,” he said. “The league is pretty much all about shooting percentages and stuff like that. So I knew that in order to be better, I had to shoot better. In order to gain respect, not letting guys go under screens, I had to make shots. So that’s what I did over the summer. It’s definitely making the game a little easier for me. Things are opening up, and I’m able to see the game in a different light.”
The changes are obvious in the numbers. Walker is making 43.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers this season, after being down at 33.1 percent last year. On pull-up 3s, he’s improved from 25.6 percent to 30.5 percent. And on shots within 10 feet of the basket, he’s up to 53.6 percent from 46.5 percent. He’s averaging a career-best 20.5 points as well as 5.0 assists and 1.8 steals a game.
Those numbers don’t pop off the stat sheet, not like Stephen Curry’s or Chris Paul’s statistics do. It takes nights like his 52-point outburst in a double-overtime victory Monday against the Jazz for Walker to earn that kind of acclaim.
“It shows that hard work pays off,” Walker said of the weekly award. “But I still feel like, I’m still not considered to be one of the top guys throughout the league. I’m just having a great run right now.”
Walker says his teammates played a big role. But he’s working with damaged parts. Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lin, the two fellow playmakers who have been such a big help to him this season, rarely have been truly healthy in the past month-plus. Al Jefferson’s presence is direly missed down low. The Hornets’ early January free fall had them 18-22 and slipping from playoff contention, but this weekend featured back-to-back victories against the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks, two other teams on the fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Doing that while Batum, Jefferson, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — four of the Hornets’ top six players — sat with injuries is crucial. Walker’s taking a ton of shots again, but unlike during the slide, he’s making them.
“Definitely just being more aggressive, but for the most part — I’m always aggressive, so I don’t know if it’s changed much,” he said. “I’m just making shots at a much higher rate now. That’s really the difference. I’m just much more consistent at this point.”
The next accolade is the All-Star Game. Walker certainly peaked at the right moment, and he is in the conversation for one of the East’s final spots. He’s likely battling with Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas, Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson and Bulls power forward Pau Gasol for that final spot. One difference with them: Their teams have winning records.
So while this hot streak turned heads, Walker knows what he has to do to be rated with the best.
“Just got to win,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about in this league. If you win and your team is winning, you have to be considered as one of the best.”