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Kemba Walker must rise to the occasion again for the Hornets

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Walker has answered critics the past two seasons, going from an average to All-Star point guard. But without swingman Nic Batum, he will have to shoulder more responsibility in a critical season for the Hornets.

NBA: Preseason-Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Kemba Walker wasn’t supposed to be this good. Too small, too inconsistent; a sixth man at best. And yet at 27, entering his 7th season in the NBA, Walker is already the greatest Charlotte Hornets player of the modern era, and, depending on how and where the rest of career goes, could wind up the greatest in franchise history.

This isn’t hyperbole.

He is 1,703 points away from surpassing Dell Curry as the team’s all-time leader in points. If he scores as many points as he did in 2016-17, Walker will pass him sometime this season. And depending on how many assists he totals, he will pass Raymond Felton for 2nd all-time in assists.

Three years ago, none of this seemed remotely possible. An average point guard on an average team, the talk of All-Star appearances would’ve sounded silly. However, his improvement the past two seasons, particularly his shooting percentages, is astonishing. Just look at the 2014-15 season versus the past two:

Kemba Walker Shooting Numbers 2014-2017

Season: PPG Field Goal % 3-PT %
Season: PPG Field Goal % 3-PT %
2014-15 17.3 38.5 30.4
2015-16 20.9 42.7 37.1
2016-17 23.2 44.4 39.9

Those 2014-15 numbers were representative of the two previous seasons as well. If you were arguing back then that Walker was a solid point guard that would operate better off the bench, you had a solid case. Historically speaking, the odds are against players making meteoric rises four or five seasons into their careers. In nearly all cases, we have players figured out by then. And yet Walker defied the odds twice.

At this point, we shouldn’t ask anything more from him. Averaging over 23 points per game and shooting near 40 percent from 3 is more than enough. But we’re going to, because the team will need everything and more from him with Nicolas Batum out. Leading the team in scoring shouldn’t be an issue. What’s important is filling the role Batum promised: getting Dwight Howard more touches.

Doing this is easier said than done, but an effective place to start is getting Howard touches through lob-action sets. The Hornets haven’t utilized the lob at all under Clifford since they’ve never had a player capable of catching them. This has been a specialty of Howard’s his entire career, and the team utilized it a lot against the Miami Heat on Monday night.

Here is Walker and Howard combining together just before halftime:

Notice that Cody Zeller flashes a screen as well, making it essentially a horns set. This gives Walker a lot of options. The first is obviously to find Howard, but if the lob isn’t there he can either find Zeller popping out or create a shot opportunity for himself. Because defenses will have to respect both the lob and Walker’s shot, the pick-and-roll could end up being highly effective. As a result, Walker could see his assists totals rise.

Here’s another clip to salivate over:

Walker is so good at penetrating the lane; Howard, meanwhile, has the natural instincts to always run at the rim. There’s so much to like about this combination and what it could do for Walker’s game. Up until this season, he’s never had a teammate like this.

And the addition of new and unique teammates has often been an important factor in Walker’s development. Al Jefferson was the first All-NBA player Walker ever played with, while Batum’s addition three seasons ago was his first chance to play with a near elite playmaker. Howard’s ability to catch the lob offers a new option for Walker, and based on the small sample size it could yield great results.

That said, Walker’s improvement is thanks to a strong work ethic and having all the right pieces place together. Again, players rarely improve as dramatically as Kemba has. We’d love to think others like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could see similar improvement, but he’s worked just as hard. Somehow, Walker tapped into something — The Force, or a dimension previously inaccessible to human beings — to improve as dramatically as he has. It could be that for ever personal challenge Walker’s faced, he’s found a way to not only face it, but overcome it. He’ll be faced with more challenges this season, and my bet is on him succeeding again.