Even as Kemba Walker was dropping a franchise record 52 points yesterday, and leading the Charlotte Hornets to a double overtime victory over the Utah Jazz the questions about him still popped up. "When is this going to regress?" "When is he going to come back down to earth?" "He's had stretches like this before. At some point it will end."
These questions have to do with Walker's unprecedented efficiency numbers. For the first time in his career he's not a streaky shooter that occasionally pops off for 30 points in game. He's not the guy that we believe to be a scorer, but is actually a below 40 percent shooter for his career. He's not someone that uses his deadly handle to create an open look, and then miss the shot. Walker is evolving. Perhaps he's already evolved.
Walker is currently shooting 43 percent from the field, and 36 percent from 3-point range with a True Shooting percentage of 54. All career highs, but what's really impressive about his season so far is that he hasn't changed the amount of shots he's taking. His usage is still at 25 percent, and his shots per game have for the most part not changed. Most of the time an increase of efficiency from high volume players usually indicates doing less, but due to Al Jefferson's injury Walker is taking on the same load as usual.
So the answer must be that Walker is playing differently right? Well not exactly. The shot chart on top is Walker's shot distribution from last season, and the chart on bottom is from this season.
The big differences are that he's getting to the corner and middle of the paint more, but outside of that Walker hasn't changed where he attacks. Yet, when we look at his actual shot charts he's making more shots than ever.
The big differences here are a little more obvious. Walker is making more 3-pointers, and even bigger than that is his increased amount of makes near the rim. He's still shooting below league average, but the jump from 46 percent to 52 percent might be the most obvious reasoning for his increased efficiency.
So nothing about the way Walker is playing has really changed, but his numbers have gone up. See why there's an expectation for this to regress? Nothing over Walker's career has told us that he's going to keep up his level of play. If anything it's a warning for an impending crash. Yet, that crash doesn't appear to be coming. Not this season at least. Walker's playing at a level that we've never seen, and it looks like he's going to stay at that level. So what has brought on this increase in shooting efficiency? It has to be more than hard work.
Well, for the first time in Walker's career he has space to work in. The Hornets change in offensive philosophy has arguably benefited nobody more than Walker. In previous seasons when making his way towards the rim he had to shoot over two or three defenders, because he was a short rotation away for defenders. Charlotte had horrid spacing, and defenses packed the paint daring them to shoot 3-pointers. Not a great environment for a guy like Walker that did a large part of his scoring off the dribble.
A large reason for why that spacing exists has been the addition of Nicolas Batum. For much of Walker's time spent in Charlotte he hasn't had another creator besides him. He had Josh McRoberts for a short time, but McRoberts couldn't take players off the dribble the way Batum can. It adds a wrinkle to the offense that Walker previously didn't have. Last season in particular the only players that could create for themselves were Al Jefferson, and Mo Williams. Neither of those two are going to get the ball to others, or Walker for that matter.
Batum on the other hand is incredible at distributing the ball. His ability to shoot, pass, or dribble creates a triple threat that defenses respect. A player like this can take the ball out of Walker's hands and let him play away from the ball. This means more catch and shoot situations, running off screens, and generally getting more open looks. 96 times this season Walker has been assisted to, and 36 of those have come from Batum. Last season, Gerald Henderson assisted on the most of Walker's makes with 25 assists with Al Jefferson close behind at 24. Batum's impact is obvious, and without him we would probably once again be questioning Walker's efficiency.
And yes, hard work is a huge part of it too. Walker could have all the help in the world, but if he's not making the shots then it doesn't matter. Walker has put in the work every offseason to improve himself, and become a better player. He has that kind of mentality. Look at his response to setting a franchise record.
Kemba Walker, after scoring 52 points. pic.twitter.com/stBSAvS0F0— Joshua B. Priemski (@HoopPlusTheHarm) January 18, 2016
He's already criticizing himself, and the way he played instead of relishing in history. The Hornets couldn't put the game away, and he took that blame on himself. That's leadership, and it's the mindset of someone who wants to be better.
It's thanks to Walker's hard work that he is now enjoying the greatest season of his career. Those questions from earlier have been replaced. "How can Charlotte build from this?" "Can he be better?" "He's had stretches like this before? What is he doing to sustain it?" Questions that were once full of doubt are now focused towards the future. It's time to stop wondering when Walker will regress into the player we once knew, and focus on how he can continue to get better.