Ian Thomsen, NBA.com
Paul George was using his gigantic advantage in height to exploit their mismatch as if he never noticed Kemba Walker trying to harass him. Then Monta Ellis was bowling over the 6-foot-1 Walker to finish a bullying postup. The Charlotte Hornets were losing with 16.2 seconds remaining, and yet the run of play was in no way humiliating for their smallest player.
Quite the opposite: It is for these opportunities that Walker plays. Because he was going to have his chance to reply.
“I love being in those kinds of moments,” he says.
He had been loving those moments for as long as his name had been in newspapers and his face had been on television. He had become the No. 9 pick by the Hornets in the 2011 NBA Draft in the wake of his 11-game tournament winning streak that drove UConn to the Big East and NCAA championships, which had been like one long last-second sequence extended over a span of four weeks.
“Some guys don’t like taking those types of shots,” Walker says. “I just want to be in the moment. If the play is drawn up for me, you better believe I’m going to go and try to win the game.”
He loves the argument, the back-and-forth debate, the chance to get in the last word when the ball does all of the talking for you. Minutes earlier, in this recent game at Indiana, he had stepped back for a crucial 3-pointer. Now, facing his final opportunity in the fourth quarter, Walker found himself splitting a pick-and-roll between Pacers defenders Ian Mahinmi and George Hill to finish a game-winning layup across the lane over George.
“I’m not going to make them every night,” Walker says. “I’m not going to make them all the time. But I’m definitely willing to take those shots.”
What Walker has discovered, this season in particular, is that there is more to the game than those moments. This is why his Hornets, in spite of an ongoing run of injuries, were beating the Pacers on Friday for their fifth win in six road games to join the carnival of playoff-worthy teams in the East. Five years since his defining jump shot to beat the Madison Square Garden buzzer in the 2011 Big East quarterfinals — the initial miracle that would be compounded with interest — Walker has filled out his game.
Aren’t the hardest plays in basketball supposed to be the plays at the end? Those were the plays that Walker always knew how to make. The rest of them, over the preceding 46 minutes, have developed more recently.
Clifford, Walker develop bond
“He actually worked me out as soon as he got the job,” says Walker of Hornets coach Steve Clifford. “It was probably more of a test just to see how good I was. It was a pretty good workout though.”
Clifford, an NBA assistant for a dozen years with four teams, had been studying video of Charlotte in preparation for his successful 2013 job interview with owner Michael Jordan and the then-Bobcats. For Clifford it had always been about the process, about the little events of the first three quarters that tend to be forgotten when games are being decided in the fourth. This was the point of view that Walker was seeking desperately.
“I had watched quite a bit of film and I wanted to show him the things that I had seen,” says Clifford of his introductory workout with Walker three years ago. “The biggest thing — and it’s what he is doing now — was taking away the under. Back then he wasn’t as good a range shooter, and there were ways to give him more of a plan when people are going under (the screen) — playing behind the screen, shooting jumpers behind the screen, using his speed if they want to go under. Things like that. Simple things.”
It would have been easy for a new coach to throw Walker under the bus, to assume that he was too small and inconsistent and needing to work too hard to create space in the NBA. Instead, Clifford recognized in Walker the potential to augment his game-ending performances, to transform himself into a steadier player across the board.
“I read this article once with coach (Bill) Parcells,” says Clifford. “When they asked him what you look for in a player, he said the No. 1 thing is competitiveness, and that you want guys who are competitive every game without the aid of coaching. When I was studying tape of Charlotte before my interview, (Walker) was killer competitive. That was the one thing that stood out. When I interviewed for the job, I said the thing that I felt we had was competitiveness. And it started with him. I think he has a way that he plays where it is contagious for his teammates. He badly wants to win, and more than that is he is willing to prepare, to put in the work. And that is why he is getting better and better.”
Clifford recognized that Walker’s ability to make the hardest plays that mattered most was not an outlier talent. He saw the proof again and again as he studied the Hornets’ game tapes.
“His toughness, his defense, his multiple efforts, his intensity on the floor,” Clifford says. “I think that has always been one of his great strengths. We play back-to-backs and five games in seven nights, and that’s when there are no speeches or magic words. You either have guys who want to win and will work toward winning, or you don’t. And when you have a guy like that for a leader, it makes a big difference.”
‘One of the most underrated’ in NBA
Walker had turned pro as an undersized junior following the 2011 lockout. His first NBA training camp was abbreviated. He would play under different systems for coaches Paul Silas and Mike Dunlap while the Hornets were going 28-120 in his first two seasons. But this relationship with Clifford and his staff was going to give way to a long-term investment in his best qualities. Stephen Silas could see the differences taking shape.
“There isn’t much studying before you get to the NBA,” says Stephen Silas, who has been an assistant coach in Charlotte throughout Walker’s career. “There is so much talent in this league that study is a huge part of it, and he’s learned that over the years. To be a point guard, especially on our team, where you have to organize as much as we do on both ends of the floor, it takes a lot.”
Walker had to articulate and define the knowledge that he took for granted. It could no longer be a game of trial-and-error for him. He had to study the science of basketball, to understand the larger strategies and tactics that dwarfed his natural abilities.
There has been nothing dramatic about his improvements. He has worked with assistant coach Steve Hetzel to improve his positioning and decision-making in the pick-and-roll. He is averaging a career-best 20.5 points while shooting 36.5 percent on 3-pointers and 42.5 percent overall, both career-highs.
“He is one of the better pick-and-roll defenders in our league,” says Clifford. “He’s a good communicator defensively, he knows what our team defense is — he is a way-above-average defender.”
“I knew he was good,” says small forward Nicolas Batum, who is finishing his first season in Charlotte with Walker. “But this good? He should have been an All-Star. People don’t understand who he is. For me he is one of the most underrated players in the league.”
Walker has also learned that the responsibilities of leadership must be held privately. He remembers the negative body language that used to typify his bad shooting nights.
“It’s tough when you’re a young player, and sometimes things are not going your way,” Walker says. “When I get down, I can sense my teammates looking at me, and they can get down as well. That was something I had to learn over the years.
“My teammates go as I go. I can’t show as much negative emotion. I have to be positive, and I’ve tried to be positive at all times, even when things are not going the right way for us.”
“You look in his eyes,” says Hornets center Al Jefferson, “and you know when you go to war with him, you’ve got to go all the way. Because when he steps on the court, even if he’s hurt, he’s going to give all he can give. For an older guy like me who has been around and seen it, you’ve got to respect a guy like that.”
Learning even in midst of career season
Last week, in the midst of a five-game trip, Walker returned home to New York with his Hornets. “The bigger the stage, right?” said Clifford after he had watched Walker score 28 points in a 104-96 win at Brooklyn. “I think he likes to come home.”
With each visit back over these last three years, Walker has been embracing his big-play mentality even as he separates himself from the player he used to be.
“His intentions are in the right place,” says Hornets forward Marvin Williams. “He has been a point guard his entire life. He has been small his entire life. The one thing I guarantee he has always been quicker than anybody he has ever faced. He is the littlest guy on the floor with the biggest heart.”
On Sunday the Hornets’ run ended abruptly. They were drubbed 87-76 in Atlanta while Walker was held to 3-for-15 shooting. “If we leave here being happy because we had a 3-2 road trip, we’ll never be that good of a team,” Clifford said after the loss. “If we leave here disappointed because we laid an egg with a chance to go 4-1, then we have a chance to move forward.”
He was saying this with confidence that his young point guard was viewing this setback from the same point of view. There was going to be another chance for Walker to come up with a reply.
“He came in as a winner and a leader after the run that he had in college,” Silas says. “He was able to will those teams to win in college. It took him a while to figure out how he could do that at the NBA level. Over the last two to three years he has been improving to the point where he can do that at our level in a different way — where he’s not just taking the ball and scoring all the points, or pushing tempo to the extent that the defense can’t handle it.
“Now he’s doing it bit more cerebrally, and mixing in the pace to where he can use his quickness when he really needs it to shoot a big 3 or make a play for a teammate. It’s funny how he has transformed over the years: It’s the same, but it’s happening in different ways.”
Best of all is that he is still only 25. Kemba Walker is learning, more and more, that having the last word is neither the be-all nor the end-all. It is in fact the beginning of a lifelong conversation.