How Kemba Walker’s Evolution Makes the Charlotte Hornets Go

Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

Walker had a breakout year last season for the Charlotte Hornets. What made his game so much more effective, and what does it mean for the team and their bid to be among the Eastern Conference’s elite moving forward.

When the Charlotte Bobcats drafted Kemba Walker ninth overall in 2011, fans rejoiced. Walker was fresh off one of the greatest championship runs in NCAA tournament history. The generously listed 6’1 guard led the Connecticut Huskies to five wins in five days to clinch the Big East Tournament, and then another six wins to claim the National Championship.

Walker came in with expectations to grab the reins of a team that had one playoff appearance since basketball returned to Charlotte in 2004. In the lockout shortened season, Charlotte recorded the worst winning percentage in NBA history and Walker struggled, starting only 25 games and shooting 36 percent from the field.

Since then, Walker has been labeled as a talented but inefficient guard, buried within the league’s deepest position and a distant cry from the game’s elite- until last season.

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The biggest change in Walker’s game is best shown in percentages. He shot a career high from the field, the free throw line, and the three-point line. In the pace and space era, Walker’s much improved three-point stroke is a revelation for him and the Charlotte Hornets’ offense. His hard work resulted in 37 percent shooting from deep last season, more than four percentage points better than his previous mark. This forced opposing guards to do something they had never done before against Walker: go over ball screens.

The high ball screen is a staple of Walker’s game and the Hornets’ offense. Out of all of the possessions Walker was involved in (i.e. took a shot, drew a foul, turned the ball over, dished an assist, etc.) according to Synergy Sports, Walker was the pick and roll ball handler in 46.7% of those. That number rivals pick and roll maestros Damien Lillard and Chris Paul. And not only did he run a lot of pick and rolls, he was efficient in them. Kemba’s pick and rolls produced 0.894 points per possession for the Hornets, good for the 81st percentile in the NBA.

Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Beyond the numbers, it just makes basketball sense. Despite his improved shooting stroke, Walker’s bread and butter is still his knifing drives into the lane among the trees. It draws help defenders and puts pressure on the opposition. But if opposing guards can just duck under the ball screen to aid the big man or better yet prevent the switch, it takes away Walker’s biggest advantages: speed and the ability to attack the rim. However, with defenses forced to go over the screen in fear of Kemba’s long ball, it allows him to get downhill with a head of steam and finish in a variety of ways.

It’s no coincidence Kemba also had career highs in free throw attempts and makes per game, as he finally got the switches he so long yearned for, forcing big men into difficult spots and as a result drawing fouls. Any time people talk about John Wall or Michael Carter Williams or Rajon Rondo, they say “yeah he’s good, but man if he could shoot…” That’s not just for making an open shot! The fear of a three-point shot opens up the defense in so many ways to allow a player to get to where he wants on the court, and Kemba is proof of that.

Notice in nearly all of the highlights below, Kemba is having a screen set for him and defenders are forced to go over it, immediately allowing Kemba to get the defender on his hip. He excels in transition and with a head of steam, which bodes well for Charlotte’s troupe of floor spacing marksmen.

The Hornets’ offense also benefitted greatly from the added spacing by plugging in Courtney Lee and Nicolas Batum to the starting lineup. In addition, stretch four Marvin Williams had a career year shooting the ball from deep and protecting the rim. This gave Walker even more space to operate and find his teammates, as well as his own shot.

Walker had another solid defensive year, averaging 1.6 steals per game and ranking in the upper half of the league in most defensive categories. All of this success across the board led to finishing in second in Most Improved Player voting. Walker also came close to being the first Charlotte all-star since 2010 among a crowded Eastern Conference backourt.

Next: Grading the Hornets Biggest Offseason Moves (Part 1)

The Hornets put the Eastern Conference on notice with their stout team defense and unselfish play. Walker has matured into one of the better primary ballhandlers in the league, and having Batum to shoulder playmaking duties allows him to focus on what he does best: score. In order for Charlotte to take the next step this season, Walker has to as well. Kemba has a chance to lead another team to heights his teammates have never experienced, and maybe conjure memories of that UConn run five years ago.