Kemba Walker just had the greatest season of his entire career for the Charlotte Hornets. In what can only be described as a breakout season, Walker dazzled fans and wowed experts as he finally put together a year that many had been wishing from him for a couple years now. The jumpshots fell. Attempts at the rim were completed, and most importantly he wasn't the sole creator. The subtle changes Walker made to his game this offseason combined with an overall system change the Hornets implemented was a perfect storm to push Walker higher than he had ever been before.
Walker's changed a lot as a player over the years. He's found ways to overcome his size and become one of the smarter defenders in the NBA, and he's improved his passing game light years ahead of where it was earlier. However, there's been one Achilles heel his entire career, and that has been Walker's jumpshot mixed in with his high volume shooting. Before this season, Walker only once averaged an entire season shooting over 40 percent from the field. He was never a dangerous 3-point shooter, and he attempted a lot of shots which didn't compliment very well to his lack of efficiency. He was known for huge scoring outbursts every once in awhile, but like any gunner these were not something that Charlotte could rely on regularly. Many will argue that the reason Walker took as many shots as he did had to do with the help around him, and it is true that the Hornets have always asked him to take on the offensive load, but if that's going to be his role then he had to play better in it. So he did.
Kemba Walker shot chart 2014-2015 (top)
Kemba Walker shot chart 2015-2016 (bottom)
It's worth noting that Walker played 19 less games last year than this year, but the sample size is still large enough to consider his shot chart from last year worth using.
The two changes that stand out the most are Walker's 3-point shot and the major jump near the rim. Everybody raved about Walker's 3-point shooting this season, but anybody that's watched Charlotte for a long time will know that Walker's inability to complete shots near the rim has always been one of his biggest weaknesses. He was already a poor jumpshooter, but his speed and quick handle gave him a skill set that made him dangerous when it came to getting to the rim. The problem is that when Walker got there he couldn't make defenses pay for it. Now, Walker is over 50 percent at close range and that is probably the biggest addition he made to his game.
Of course, it's a lot easier to get to the rim when the jumpshot is falling. Walker has always been a player that defenders could give a little bit of space against. If he pulled up for a shot so be it, because he was a lot less likely to hurt teams from deep. In previous years Walker's 3-point percentage hung out in the low 30's, but this year it made a major jump to 37 percent and forced defenses to approach how they guard him differently. They couldn't just sag off of him anymore because he was going to make the shots that he previously wasn't making it. This made him more dangerous in the pick and roll as well. Go under the screen and Walker will pull up and make the shot. Go over it and he uses his speed to create penetration and kick out to one of the Hornets many 3-point shooters. He has never been a fun player to guard just because his crossover can put even the greatest of defenders on the floor. This year defending him was even worse cause not only could he put his defender on skates, but now he'll make the jumpshot along with it.
So how did Walker see such a jump between seasons? Well there's the obvious answers like working out in the offseason, and it is well reported that he made some small changes to his shooting stroke this year. But even the hardest of workers rarely see such a change of this magnitude. The biggest reason Walker saw such a jump this year was the Hornets taking a little bit of slack off of him from a creator standpoint. Additions such as Jeremy Lin and Nicolas Batum gave Walker an extra creator on the floor to work with. He didn't have to do absolutely everything like he had done his entire career. Even when Al Jefferson was having an All-NBA level season in 2013, Walker still had to take on a heavy creator role just to get Jefferson the ball. That's a lot of work for just one player. This year, Walker finally had a little bit of help and it paid off.
Of all of that help, nobody had a bigger impact for Walker this year than Batum. Walker has had a great season, and he had many moments where he put the team on his back and carried them to wins. However, his numbers looked best whenever Batum was on the floor with him.
It's difficult to criticize a player when he's not playing with the best talent put around him, but Walker showed shades of previous seasons whenever Batum was on the bench. When not playing with Batum, Walker's percentage from the field was a very poor 39 percent, and his 3-point shooting drastically fell to 28 percent. Compare this to 44 percent from the field when playing with Batum, and an incredible 41 percent from 3-point range when playing with him. Now some of this goes back to the discussion on when Walker has help and isn't forced to carry the load, but those numbers without Batum are scary. Although to be fair to Walker the sample size is smaller due to the fact that the two played with each other the second most of anybody on the team. No pairing got more minutes together besides Marvin Williams and Walker. So while the information about Walker's numbers without Batum are important they need to be taken in the context of they're not supposed to be playing without each other anyways.
So what does all of this say about Walker? Well, for one it means the Hornets should do their best to re-sign Batum for as much money as he wants. It also means that Walker probably isn't a superstar level player that can carry a team all on his own without the help. Which really shouldn't be shocking anybody. The question it should really be raising is about Walker's sustainability. He's never been a player that could consistently put together great basketball for an entire season until his most recent season. Now that he has, there's a lot of evidence saying that Batum plays a big part in his success. This causes concern on if that 3-point shot, and his percentages, are going to stay as high as they are.
Personally, based on past information, this was probably a year where Walker shot the best he may ever shoot. Of course they do say that shooting ages like wine so maybe he'll just keep getting better. What's more likely though is he's going to take a dip. Not as dramatic as previous years where he falls back the low 30's from 3-point range, and below 40 from the field, but a dip none the less. The jumpshot was too good all season long to fall back to the poor shooting he was known for in previous years.
With or without Batum, Walker is an extremely talented scorer that can do a lot of good things on the offensive end. On defense he knows the role he has to play, and is incredibly smart. His leadership skills took a jump this season, and he currently owns a franchise record in points. He almost brought the Hornets to the second round by himself, and there are very few players in the NBA more fun to watch cook than Walker.
Walker is still at a point of his career where he can get better, but that was likely the last year he's going to take a major jump of the level he did. What we see out of Walker is around what we're going to get out of him. Right now, that looks like an average to above average high volume player known for the occasional scoring burst. Is he perfect? No, but that's not what the Hornets need out of him. Walker spent a large portion of his career as a below average guard, and now he's taken a jump to the next level. Now, to see if he can sustain that level of play and remain on that level. If he can, he'll be a very valuable player for the Hornets for years to come.