This is the time of year that legends are made in NCAA basketball, as Kemba Walker knows well. It was in March five years ago that the now-Hornets guard began to leave his mark and ensure that he would be remembered by fans of the college game for years to come.
Of course, Walker doesn’t quite fit the typical archetype of March Madness heroes that come from smaller schools and are largely unknown before becoming stars in the tournament – guys like UNI’s Ali Farokhmanesh or Butler’s Gordon Hayward. Instead, he was the 14th-ranked recruit out of high school, rated a 96 by ESPN’s recruiting experts.
Even before his final tournament run, he was a well-known player. As a freshman at UConn, he was named to the Big East All-Rookie Team. His team struggled during his sophomore year and lost in the second round of the NIT, but he was their second-leading scorer and earned a spot on the All-Big East Third Team. And during the regular season of his senior year, he was fifth in the nation in scoring and was named to the All-Big East First Team.
If he wasn’t quite a household name after his impressive regular season, however, it would not be long until he became one. In a series of five days, Walker led his team to five wins during the Big East tournament, with the latter four victories all coming against top-25 teams. The last three wins, over Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Louisville, came by a combined 10 points and included his famous step-back game winner:
Already, Walker had led his team on a memorable postseason run. But, as we all know by now, he wasn’t done yet.
Walker averaged 23.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.5 steals per game during the NCAA tournament on his way to a national championship. After a disappointing 9-9 conference record during the regular season, Walker led his team to 11 straight wins and secured his legacy as one of the most memorable and exciting college basketball players in recent memory.
Despite his incredible college career, however, there were doubts about Walker’s potential in the NBA. He wasn’t a particularly efficient scorer in college, and some analysts questioned whether if his height would limit his effectiveness on defense after he measured at just 6’1” in shoes at the draft combine. According to NBA.com’s 2011 Consensus Mock Draft, he was projected to go somewhere near the end of the lottery. He was picked slightly before expected when the Hornets (then known as the Bobcats) took him with the ninth pick.
For the first several years of his NBA career, it seemed that Walker’s doubters had a point. He was an inefficient scorer, never registering a true shooting percentage higher than 51.7% and shooting below the league average on three-pointers. His defense wasn’t very impressive, either, and the Hornets were better on that end of the floor when he was on the bench. He wasn’t a complete failure by any means, but as a point guard that was not particularly efficient on either end of the floor, he was perhaps not as much of a success as his fans would have hoped.
Things have changed this year, and Kemba Walker has established himself as one of the best, and most underrated, point guards in the NBA. The raw numbers (21 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.6 steals per game) show that he’s having a great year, but the advanced numbers paint a much more complete picture.
He spent the offseason working on his jump shot and is posting both the best three-point percentage and true shooting percentage of his career. He’s also improved his inside scoring, shooting 59.8% from three or less feet, a career high. On top of that, he’s also getting to the line and making his free throws at career-high rates.
Source: NBA Savant
Of course, there is a bit of a chicken/egg situation here – has the Hornets’ offense improvement come as a result of Walker’s better shooting, or is his shooting a result of Charlotte’s offense improving due to a change in personnel or coaching scheme? It’s probably a bit of both. They traded Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh for Nicolas Batum this summer and signed Jeremy Lin. Batum and Lin are, respectively, second and fourth on the team in points so far. And due to injuries, they’ve moved away from Al Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, two guys that don’t really fit in modern offenses. That’s not to say either is a bad player (MKG’s value is very interesting, but that’s a topic for another time); it’s just that the league is moving away from back-to-the-basket big men and Kidd-Gilchrist is still a poor shooter.
Source: NBA Savant
This chart shows that the Hornets have become a smarter team when it comes to shooting. They’ve traded a lot of last year’s mid-range jumpers for more efficient three-point shots. In a league that values shooting more than ever, it’s vital to be able to spread the floor and hit three-pointers. After four years of being among the worst teams from behind the arc, Kemba Walker and the Hornets sit at seventh-place in three point percentage this season. The Hornets, who have never ranked above 24th on offense during Walker’s career, have managed an offensive rating of 107.04 so far, 13th-highest in the NBA.
Their offense is just barely in the top half, so it’s not a fantastic number, but it shows just how much the team has improved on that side this season. Steve Clifford has led his team to a top-10 defense every year as head coach of the Hornets, but this is the first time that they’ve managed to combine that with a workable offense. You can’t be a legitimate contender if you’re really bad on one end of the floor, as the Hornets have learned. As the offense improves, the team’s chances in the postseason do too.
Not everything is rosy for Walker and Charlotte, though. The defense is still worse when he’s on the floor, though it’s one of the league’s better numbers either way. Despite the success of newcomers Batum and Lin, it’s still not clear if the guys making the personnel decisions for the team actually know what they’re doing – something that will be put to the test this summer when Jefferson, Batum, Marvin Williams, and Courtney Lee are all among the free agents on the team.
Still, it’s the best Kemba Walker has looked since his college days, and his success is translating to success for his team. He probably can’t carry this team to a title like he did in college, but he may help them win their first playoff game (or even series!) in a long, long time.