Chances are if you’re reading this you’re more than just a casual fan of the Charlotte Hornets, and may have even caught a few of their games this year. That being the case, you likely noticed that Kemba Walker was clearly the best and most consistent player on the team. But just so there’s no confusion, let me make this clear: Kemba Walker killed it this season.
Many of us are happy to forget the 2016-17 season and move on. In an up and down year that saw the team at some points overachieve and others play incredibly underwhelming basketball, Walker was a mostly unwavering beacon of light and hope. Kemba didn’t just have a good year, he had the best of his career.
The six year vet posted career highs in points (23.2), field goal percentage (44), and three point percentage (40), while also getting over All-Star Snub hump, finally receiving a well deserved selection to the annual exhibition showcase.
While the roster was under constant siege of injuries, trades and D-league call ups, Walker gave it his all night in and out, leading the team back from huge deficits while playing the most efficient ball of his career.
Walker could have looked at the roster Rich Cho and the rest of the front office surrounded him with this season and decided, “I’m going to have to score 60 every night here.” And that honestly would’ve been a fair assessment. The Nicolas Batum max contract discussion is one for another article. For my part, I think it was a move that had to be made, and can argue the merits of it. But one thing that became abundantly clear this year is that Batum cannot be your team’s number two scorer. That’s not his game.
The one thing Walker has always been undeniable at in every stage of his career is getting buckets. Ol’ buddy knows how to put the ball in the net, and has never needed prodding to do so. I honestly wouldn’t have been mad at him if he looked at the team this year and decided to go ‘05-’06 Kobe and just straight gun it all season. After all, this was the first time in his professional career that the governor had been taken off completely. They didn’t just turn the offense over to him, he was the offense.
Every team has good basketball players. Boogie Cousins has long been lauded as one of the best big men in the game, posting eye popping scoring and rebounding numbers while exhibiting an unstoppable array of offensive low post moves. But his teams lose, a lot, and his teammates never look super happy to be playing with him.
Kemba didn’t just establish himself as a star in the league this season, he emerged as a true team leader, facilitating the offense by picking his spots and getting teammates involved early. He’d often wait until the third or fourth quarter to fully unleash his scoring attack. There’s no nice way to say this, but the rest of Charlotte’s roster isn’t offensively inclined. Batum, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Ramon Sessions, Jeremy Lamb, Marco Belinelli, Frank… There isnt a single other “pure scorer” in the Hornets rotation in 2016-17. Walker seemed to understand early on that if this team was going to win any games, he had to help make these guys into “offensive threats”.
In a way, being the only obvious focal point for defenses to key on helped Walker’s facilitation. He was often trapped early in the halfcourt and double teamed, allowing those other guys to get much better open looks for higher percentage shots. A less mature player looking to pad his personal stats would likely force it in those situations, taking the extra defensive attention as vindication of the idea that he was in fact the only player on the team even worth guarding.
That’s the mid-aught’s Kobe model: “Damn, there’s FOUR guys guarding me right now?? That means that at least three of my teammates… will have a clear view of me trying to score right here!” Walker wisely exploited that extra pressure, hitting the open players and facilitating team ball movement. That style of play has a much more positive long term effect. When the best player on your team trusts in you and gets you involved, you want to follow that guy into battle. You want to hit those shots. You don’t want to let him down.
That chemistry building element of Walker’s leadership is an important one. This team has long been in desperate need for an identity, any identity, from the player’s side. Much of the Hornets modest successes under Steve Clifford have been attributed to the coach’s effective defensive schemes and ability to get the most out of overlooked, marginal talents. I’m not here to try and diminish that narrative; Clifford has earned that praise. But speaking purely as a fan, at a certain point, that kind of sucks y’all.
The NBA is exciting. Probably more than any other major professional sport, it is driven by personalities and stars. This incarnation of the franchise has never had that. Gerald Wallace made an All-Star team, and you couldn’t create a more prototypical “fan favorite” player in a lab if you tried, but lets be real, that guy had the personality of well, of a guy named Gerald Wallace. Baron Davis gave us a glimpse of that type of magnetic, star leader for a brief moment, but is forever associated in my mind with those regrettable late period divorce years that no Hornets fan is eager to reminisce about.
Glen Rice had the best three year run of any single hornets player to date, but he never really felt like he was “ours”. LJ and Zo were ours, but then they weren't, it was over too soon. Here’s the point: Kemba Walker has now established himself as “the” Hornet. He doesn’t quite have all of the records yet, but he will. He’s our guy. You can choose to look at that as an indictment of our franchise if you want. That’s fair. But Walker deserves that status. He’s earned it and worked his ass off for it. The franchise finally has a face that isn’t the coach or the owners. It has a leader on the floor. It has a real star. You can look back at the 2016-17 season as a disappointment, but just remember, this was the year Kemba dropped the Walker from his name. He doesn’t need it anymore. We all know who’s team it is.