There were so many great things to take away from Wednesday night's game against the Milwaukee Bucks. A sold out arena, the return of the Hornets name to the franchise, an improbable comeback victory, incredible individual games by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams, and two incredibly clutch shots by Kemba Walker. Fans can revel in these memories as they build excitement for the next game and brag about their hometown heroes at the water cooler. Unfortunately for coaches and players, there was plenty of bad and ugly to go with the good moments from opening night.
One thing that stood out was how Kemba Walker played defensively against Brandon Knight. It is no secret that Walker could stand to make improvements in his defense, especially in the pick and roll. He and his coach have publicly said the same thing. Considering this known growth opportunity and Walker spending the summer in Charlotte working with coach Steve Clifford, it seems fair to expect defensive improvement from Charlotte's fourth year point guard (who just got a big time contract extension).
Going up against Brandon Knight is not an easy assignment for any NBA point guard, but considering just how deep and talented the position is right now, Walker will constantly be battling difficult assignments. Early in the first quarter, coach Jason Kidd went right after Walker and Al Jefferson in the point guard-center pick and roll. The early results were not encouraging.
While getting back on defense and tracking Knight, Walker gets caught on a very early screen from Sanders that really should have been easy to avoid if he had been paying attention. He doesn't do enough to fight back and get a hand on Knight's hip, leaving Al Jefferson in a very tough position.
With the four shooters on the floor for the Bucks, no one can overcommit to help Jefferson here and Knight easily drives by him for a layup, plus the foul. This is the sort of situation that drives a coach mad, as the defense should never have been tested this early in the shot clock. Walker got caught napping and hurt his teammates for it.
The old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" comes to mind after watching the next few minutes of film. Milwaukee went right back at Walker, again with a point guard-center pick and roll.
This time, Walker's ready for the screen, but he goes under it, which is the right strategy against a player like Knight. However, Walker goes so far under the screen that it allows Knight a driving lane. Jefferson is again caught in a bad spot, but this time he did well to force Knight under the basket.
After being pretty much burned on the drive, Walker puts his hands to his side and just sort of wanders into the paint. This leaves Larry Sanders wide open under the basket and results in an easy two points.
Not only was the pick and roll a problem, but standard dribble penetration as well.
Knight, noticing Walker has over committed to his right hand, crosses back to his left and gets deep into the paint.
The screen shot above is a typical look at Charlotte's defense if a player is able to dribble into the paint. Cody Zeller is forced to help, leaving Ersan Ilyasova wide open. Luckily for Charlotte this was only a midrange jumper, a shot the defense is built to force.
After just one quarter, Knight had eight points and six assists, all against Kemba Walker. That's not an encouraging defensive start. As the game went on, Charlotte sank further and further behind Milwaukee. Jumpers were falling for the Bucks and the Hornets were struggling to get back in transition. Luckily for Charlotte, the defense came alive in the fourth quarter and Walker was a big part of that.
With 2:50 left in the fourth quarter, the Hornets down eight, the Bucks go right back to a pick and roll with Sanders and Knight. This time, the pick is a little late (and honestly just poorly executed), which allows Walker a much easier path around the screen.
The difference between this play and the previous plays in the first quarter is tremendous. Walker is using his feet to play defense here and side steps Sanders' screen with ease. Staying in front of Knight the entire time, this allows Jefferson the ability to slide back to Sanders, trapping Knight in the corner. Once there, Walker can go for the steal, a skill he rarely gets to use in coach Clifford's conservative defensive scheme.
Plays like this one, and the other where Walker forced Knight into an Al Jefferson block, were a big reason Charlotte was able to claw back into this game. The more Walker can play defense like he did above, the better off the new era Hornets will be this year.