For the most part, athletes – because of skill level or physical limitation – have a ceiling of what they can contribute to a team. Sometimes, they have to deal with that while having the misfortune of being cast in a role that exceeds their capabilities. For the last couple of NBA seasons, Kemba Walker has been that guy.
He has been the nominal star player for the Charlotte Hornets (formerly Bobcats), shouldering the offense even though he lacked the stroke or vision to do so. As far as anyone was concerned, he was a decent player who dribbled and shot too much for his own good. Or at least he was until this season, where for the fist time in his career, he is scoring efficiently.
Kemba Walker has defied expectations and turned himself into a credible jump shooter. He is shooting 46.3 percent from the field, and nearly 40 percent from three-point range. He has become a legitimate spot-up threat when either Nicolas Batum or Jeremy Lin take over ball handling duties. According to NBA.com, he is scoring 1.10 points per possession (PPP) on spot-up opportunities, logging an effective field-goal percentage of 55.7 percent.
The addition of offensive specialists and the overhaul of the Hornets’ offense have partly contributed to Walker’s improved jumper. He benefits from the attention his teammates elicit from defenders. Instead of constantly taking contested jumpers, Walker can now step into open shots. Last season, only 26.7 percent of his shots were classified as open, defenders being within four to six feet of Walker, per NBA.com. However, this season 35.1 percent of his field goals are considered open.
Besides it being a huge boon to Charlotte’s spacing, Walker’s improved shooting has also helped him become a more dangerous pick-and-roll player – the most prevalent and important offensive play in the NBA. The pick-and-roll on its own can be effective, but in today’s NBA, it is often the opening sequence to a more sophisticated play. The play’s success is predicated on the ball handler—in this case, Walker—being able to get into the paint or the middle of the floor. If the ball handler is an insufficient jump shooter, the defense can just crash down into the paint and clog driving lanes. Now that Walker can hit the outside shot, he can make defenses pay for going under the pick like he does here:
Last season, Walker scored .83 PPP in the pick-and-roll, notching an effective field-goal percentage of 40 percent, and turned the ball over only 10.6 percent of the time. In light of Walker’s shooting struggles, that scoring is actually impressive. But now that he has incorporated some shooting into his game, he can become even more potent in the pick-and-roll. So far that assumption has proven true.
This season, he has scored the fourth-most points using the pick-and-roll in the NBA. According to NBA.com, Walker is scoring .92 PPP while only turning the ball over 12.7 percent of the time. Now that he is a proficient shooter (at least for now), defenders can’t give him too much space. They have to respect his shot or risk giving away an open three-pointer.
While Walker has become more efficient, he still enjoys a steady diet of pull-up jump shots, sometimes to his own detriment. According to NBA.com, nearly 50 percent of his attempted baskets are pull-up shots, and he is taking 6.9 per game. That is just too many considering he’s only shooting 38.1 percent on them.
It would be one thing if he was Stephen Curry, but he is most definitely not. If Walker is to build on his newfound efficiency, he has to tone down on his pull-up attempts. Though I may be nitpicking considering his past struggles, the fact that he is having this kind of season should be appreciated instead of critiqued. Either way, if the Charlotte Hornets want to be a power in the East, Kemba Walker has to prove that this kind of shooting is sustainable.