Kemba Walker: Passing a lonely star

— November 8th 2017

The star point guard of the Charlotte Hornets gets plenty of plaudits for his scoring ability, but what about his play-making?

By: Paul Headley

Kemba Walker was once a project. Talented and lightning quick, Walker’s lack of shooting (49.5 percent True Shooting Percentage over his first four seasons) kept his name out of any discussion of the league’s best point guards.

A Kawhi Leonard-type transformation has ensued in the intervening years. Walker hasn’t just become a respectable shooter, he’s borderline elite. Per Synergy tracking data, Walker shot 47.7 percent on catch-and-shoot threes in 2016-17, and a very respectable 35.4 percent on pull-up threes (on 4.8 attempts per game). Damian Lillard, a much more lauded shooter league-wide, shot 41.9 percent on catch-and-shoots, and just 33.9 percent on pull-ups (4.8 attempts). Lillard has a propensity for difficult attempts, but the comparison is very complimentary to Walker.

Two consecutive rough shooting nights from three, 1-for-6 against the Spurs and 0-for-5 versus the Timberwolves, have killed his percentage in the early-going (down to 35.2 percent), but he’d been at 41.9 through his first eight games.

One of Walker’s most elite skills is his ability to create separation. Owner of one of the most nuclear quick step-backs in the game, clean looks come more often than one might expect. Even the best defenders find it difficult to stick with him:

 

Walker can square his body in an instant, and has developed a very quick release. The bigger the sample-size the better, but we’re coming close to the day when Kemba Walker is a name you’ll see thrown in with the best shooters in the league.

The advanced metrics love Walker this season. According to Basketball-Reference, Walker currently ranks in the top 20 in both Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS/48) and Value Over Replacement Player, and his TS% is over the magical 60 percent mark for the first time in his career (60.1 percent).Walker’s ability to attack, shoot and score is key to his impact. What’s truly elevated his game, however, is how he’s blending his elite ability to score and play-make, leveraging each threat against the other.

Passing and Court Vision

Walker is a much better play-maker than he’s given credit for, a common fate of the scoring point-guard generation (see Curry, Stephen). Walker looks to score first, then reads and reacts according to how the defense is playing him.

Walker is surprisingly good at floating passes over and around bigger defenders. Generously listed at six-foot-one, Walker compensates for his lack of height with patience and hang-time. Watch this perfectly weighted gem out of the trap to Marvin Williams in the left-corner:

 

Walker has become very good at baiting weak or inexperienced defenders into leaning one way or the other. Watch him fake the entry pass over Taurean Prince’s head as Dwight Howard posts-up deep. Prince abandons his stance for just a moment and Walker punishes him with the pretty bounce pass inside:

 

Now that he’s finally getting respect as a shooter, Walker knows how to leverage it to find better shots for his teammates. Watch as he gets Dewayne Dedmon in the air, fakes the feed to Howard again, before finally finding the angle for the the cross-court pass to Frank Kaminsky for a wide-open corner three. Swish.

Driving and Dishing

Walker is one of the best in the league at collapsing the defense at the rim. Walker can cut down the lane like a buzzsaw, making hammer-esque plays like the following a real weapon for the Hornets:

 

Jeremy Lamb has shot 7-for-8 on left corner threes thus far this season, and is having a career year shooting the ball overall (59.1 True Shooting Percentage). A certain amount of regression might be expected, but Walker is getting him and the rest of the team really good shots in rhythm. While he sometimes flings wild passes when he gets caught in the air at the basket, they find their intended target more often than not:

 

Passes made while balanced and in control are almost always delivered perfectly into the hands of the Hornets’ shooters.

Walker’s combination of tight handle and nitro-first-step make him a nightmare coming off picks. He keeps his dribble low to the ground, expertly reading defender movements as he explodes to the basket. Walker’s numbers inside three feet aren’t amazing (57.1 percent per Basketball-Reference), but the crowd he draws really opens things up for his teammates. Watch him cause havoc (and bad decisions) against the Pistons:

 

Walker isn’t always playing at 200 miles-an-hour. He’s gotten a lot better at knowing when to turn on the jets, and is more than capable of probing, Steve Nash style, for an opening to present itself. Watch him reward Marvin Williams’ beautifully timed cut:

 

I love this kind of staggered-screen action involving Williams and Howard. The triple threat of a Kemba-drive, Howard-roll and Williams-pop helps to alleviate the problem of the Hornets lack of elite offensive weapons outside of Walker:

Team Offense

The Hornets rank 23rd in offensive efficiency. Rather than an indictment on Walker, said ranking reflects the Hornets lack of elite creation outside of their starting point. With Walker on the court, the Hornets post a 112.1 offensive-rating (per NBA.com on/off data), a mark that would rank second in the league. Without him, that number drops to 81.2, about as awful as a professional basketball team gets.

If the team is to find it’s way out of the quagmire of mediocrity in which they currently languish, Malik Monk will have to pop (to use the vogue term). The young rookie (still only 19), has struggled with consistency in the early part of the season. If he can develop enough over the next few years, perhaps the Hornets can transform into something other than a pleasant eighth seed. Walker’s game deserves it.

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