Kemba Walker's season started about as well as he could have hoped for. Days after signing a four-year $48 million extension with the Charlotte Hornets, Walker helped the team rally against the Milwaukee Bucks in their home opener, capping it off with the game winning shot. He was a hero that night, as he had been numerous times over the course of his career. It's evident that Walker is a player that thrives in pressure situations more often than not. That was something we already knew coming into the season, and he only cemented that.
Walker has become a fan favorite because he's passionate, fearless, and let's get one thing straight, has the best crossover in the league (I'll fight anyone on this). He showed all of that this season, but he also showcased his flaws. He's an inefficient scorer that can't play effectively with another ball dominant guard, and for all his heroics he can rely on them too much. He showed all of what he is, and much of what he isn't, and it came during a year he was supposed to take the next step in his career. Walker may have created some doubters, and their concerns hold merit, but this season showed that with a few adjustments to his game, and to the roster, Walker can become a more effective player.
Walker's shooting was the most scrutinized part of his game this season. His scoring average virtually mirrored the past two seasons, as did the number of attempts, but his field goal percentage was the lowest since his rookie season, and his 3-point percentage hit a new career low.
The month-to-month does tell a story however -- after a poor November, he pushed his scoring averages to above 40 percent in both December and January. In January, I wrote this article detailing how Walker was breaking his career shooting trend of only shooting well in December before regressing each consecutive month, until season's end. He did break that trend to a small degree, as his 41.1 percent shooting percentage in January was the first time he had shot above 40 percent for that month in his career. However, everything came crashing down at the end of the month, as a torn meniscus kept Walker out for all of February and some of March. Any shooting groove he had found prior to that was gone, and he shot horrendously the final two months of the season.
While I praised Walker for his shooting percentages in December and January, they were still the mark of a average shooter. That was hard to accept, because the eye test leads me to put faith in Walker as a scorer. He's dangerous in the triple threat, and he has a seemingly infinite amount of moves to create space for himself. He simply looks like an NBA caliber scorer, but the numbers tell another story. Still, I wasn't ready to accept it. Somewhere deep within the advanced shooting stats and analytics was the answer to Kemba Walker's shooting.
Ultimately, those numbers don't exist. I looked over all of Walker's shooting numbers for this season. How was he as a pull-up jump shooter? What about as a catch-and shoot player? What about when he takes more than three dribbles? Or more than six? I looked for something that would stand out, an answer of sorts that would solve the crisis of Walker's poor shooting. I found nothing, and can only conclude that at this point in his career, Walker isn't a good shooter. He can get hot from time to time, but his percentages indicate that there is no reason he should be averaging nearly 16 attempts per game. He attempted more shots per game than any other player on the team this season, and that's a problem.
This isn't all Walker's fault. To this point, Walker has never played with a truly efficient perimeter scorer. Gerald Henderson's effectiveness was limited due to his shooting range, Lance Stephenson wasn't the outside scorer many thought he would be, and Mo Williams was in many ways an older version of Walker. While Walker has played with role players like Anthony Tolliver and Gary Neal (pre-shoulder injury) that were legitimate 3-point threats, he has never played with starting caliber go-to scorer in his NBA career, and as a result has become the de-facto hero.
Think about it. When there's a lineup of Walker, Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, and Al Jefferson, who takes the last shot? When the team needs a 3-pointer to tie, who takes it? It shouldn't be Walker, but it is, and too often this season it was him. For Walker to raise those percentages, he's going to have to take less shots (most of those being 3-pointers), and the Hornets are going to have to find a shooting guard or small forward that can become their go-to scorer. As long as Walker continues to be that player, his shooting is going to suffer.
Walker's decision making was questionable at times this season as well. He's a ball dominant guard and a high usage player, and that's fine so long as the right decisions are made when handling the ball. However, Walker resorted to the hero ball mentality too often this season, settling for jump shots or forcing passes while failing to recognize the better play. No play stands out more than against the Sacramento Kings, when late in the game the Kings switched off a pick and roll, and Jefferson found himself being guarded by 5'9 Isaiah Thomas on a post up. Jefferson didn't even attempt to call for the ball, because he knew Walker had already made up his mind and wasn't going to pass. Maybe Walker has developed tunnel vision after years of being relied on too often, but there were points during games when the other four Hornets on the court might as well have sat down, because Walker wasn't passing. Again, maybe this isn't all his fault. Putting starting caliber wing scorers on the floor would give Walker another option, and hopefully he would succeed to them.
What's clear this season is that the Hornets relied too much on Walker. He is a leader, a dynamic player, and a recent signee of a contract that demands higher expectations, but the team still relied on him too much. It's no coincidence that last season Jefferson attempted over three more attempts per game than Walker. While Walker's shooting numbers weren't significantly better, the team's record was. Walker would make a great third or fourth scoring option on the team, coach Steve Clifford said as much at the end of the season, but too often this season he was the first option, and his performance and the team's suffered.
His shooting slightly regressed numbers wise, but I wouldn't call him a worse shooter than he was last season, just less efficient. I think he did grow more into his role as leader on the team, as he kept positive and backed his teammates and coaches all season. More improvements as a basketball player, particularly as a scorer, would have been nice though.
Walker had a number of big plays this season, but I went with his game winner against New York:
The shot was the pinnacle of Walker's hero ball, the Hornets were dead, on the verge of losing their 11th straight game, and Walker scored off a seemingly impossible angle. Plus, he scored on a designed out of bounds play, so who says Coach Clifford's out of bounds plays don't work?
He's a Hornet for the next four seasons, as the extension begins in the fall. It's hard to believe he will be entering his fifth season in the NBA, and that might cause some to question how much development he has left. However, I'm under the belief that he will continue to improve, as he just turned 25 on May 8th. To improve, he should focus on developing better shooting habits and a better shot selection. Improving both could in turn improve his decision making. It's clear that he shouldn't be the team's first or second scoring option, and once the team puts enough legitimate scorers around him (a healthy Jefferson would be great for starters) he could thrive as the starting point guard and playmaker for the team.