The 2014 season started off so well for Kemba Walker. He had a new backcourt mate in fellow New Yorker Lance Stephenson. He was one of the faces of a franchise that had undergone a rebrand that had an entire city abuzz with excitement. On opening night, he played a key role in the biggest comeback in franchise history, culminating with this:
A week later, he would sign a four-year, $48 million dollar extension with the team.
And since then, it has all been downhill.
The Hornets are off to a 4-14 start and have lost nine consecutive games while Walker is putting up numbers below that which you would expect from someone who just signed such a lucrative contract. Through 18 games, he is averaging just 14 points per contest while shooting 36.4 percent from the field (the the lowest of his career), 74.2 percent from the free throw line (the lowest since his freshman year at UConn) and 27.3 percent on 3 pointers (again, the lowest since his freshman year at UConn).
These shooting statistics have made him a popular punching bag among fans. He is a shoot-first, pass-second point guard that is not making his shots right now.
But why exactly are his numbers so low?
Reason #1: Shot selection
Kemba Walker is taking less 2-point shots so far this season. This is a fact. The past two years, he averaged more than 11 2-pointers a game. Currently, he is taking an average of 9.6 2-pointers a game. In fact, if you go by percentages, Walker is actually trying more 3-pointers than ever before in his career. Nearly 31 percent of his shots so far have come from deep, which is not exactly the best combination if you are a career 31.8 percent shooter from 3.
The reason why is not clear. Perhaps he is still trying to get used to new teammates. Maybe it is a product of the entire team's offense struggling. It could be that Clifford has put an emphasis on the team to shoot more from deep.
Reason #2: Not hitting shots when he is open
Chances are that by now you have seen Zach Lowe's article on the team struggling. If you have seen it, then this photo will look familiar.
In it, you will notice what Lowe describes as "Stephen Curry barely guarding Walker". This has been a theme all year — teams are playing off Walker and daring him to shoot because he is struggling. Then, when he gets open looks, he is not hitting them. On shots where defenders are 4 to 6 feet off of Walker, the point guard is shooting 29.7 percent. He is making less than 3 out of every 10 open looks he sees. That is not good. At all. It is also almost 10 percentage points worse than what he shot last year (38.8 percent) in the same metric.
Want some more numbers to make you feel bad? Walker is shooting 28.2% on all field goals 8 to 16 feet from the basket. Again, not good.
It has been this vicious circle all year. Teams play off Walker because he is not hitting shots. Walker then takes the shots the opponent gives him because, well, he is open. Walker misses the shot, the other team rebounds, and that's the end of the possession. It will not go on like this all season. Walker will eventually hit those open shots. If you give any player enough looks like that, eventually, they will begin to knock them down.
Reason #3: Not put in good positions
Part of the reason for Walker's shooting struggles may be that the offense in general is just struggling. The team will try to run a play, and it won't work or will break down somehow. When this happens and Walker is on the floor, the team seems to default to letting him go one-on-one with a defender. This normally leads to some crossovers and a contested jump shot near or as the shot clock expires, which is far from the ideal look you want on any possession.
Perhaps the team could try to free him up with more pick and rolls? The Hornets have tried that, to little success so far. Again, we look to another photo from Lowe's article.
Here is a usual look for Walker coming off a screen: five defenders staring right at him, not truly respecting anyone else on the floor. So the majority of the focus would be on Kemba, who is unable to get to the hoop for an easy layup and often is forced to pass or take a contested jumper. When he does get to the hoop on the drive, he will often run circles under it and look to pass to a teammate or reset the play at the top of the key instead of shooting — something I first remember seeing Steve Nash do years ago and notice more players are doing today.
In short, Kemba is taking bad shots and the offense is not exactly helping him get to spots where he is more likely to succeed (though based on the shot chart above, that's not exactly a lot of places). Which brings me to my final point...
Reason #4: Slumping
Kemba Walker is in a prolonged shooting slump. Perhaps he is feeling extra pressure from his new contract and is trying hard to live up to it. Perhaps he feels the pressure of the expectations the team had coming into this year and is trying harder than ever to make something happen. The fact is that Walker is missing shots that he has usually made over the course of his career and one would think that eventually, things will begin to fall into place and his shots will begin to drop.
Regardless of the reason for Walker's slump, the Hornets desperately need the point guard they hoped they were getting when they signed him to that massive extension just over a month ago if they want to turn this season around.