Charlotte Hornets

Kemba Walker has never been better

Though they may seem like it, the Kemba Walker-led Charlotte Hornets are not a one-man show. Jeremy Lamb is a talented wing with the off-the-bounce jazz; Cody Zeller embodies the role of a low-usage center, setting impenetrable screens and anchoring the paint; Miles Bridges has delighted in his rookie year, carving out a consistent rotation spot. Yet it’s easy to understand why that narrative exists because Charlotte lacks a true complementary option next to Walker.

Flick on a Hornets game and that becomes apparent — like Walker’s 60-point detonation against the Philadelphia 76ers. When the Hornets trailed 101-91 with 4:10 to play in regulation, the eighth-year guard promptly scored 17 of his team’s final 19 points to force overtime. Or, just two days later, when he scored 43 as Charlotte rallied back from another 10-point deficit in the final frame, behind 21 big ones from Walker, to knock off the Boston Celtics.

These performances are hypnotizing spectacles — the very definition of #LeaguePassAlert — dazzling outbursts from a 6-foot-1 Energizer Bunny, who might blend in at the supermarket if his face wasn’t splashed all over your television. This season he’s averaging 28.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 6.6 assists on a .455/.386/.866 slash line.

As a shooter, there’s not a more apt comparison for Stephen Curry than Walker this season, though Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving draw more parallels for their ocean-deep range and torrid scoring stretches. Walker is a fully autonomous being on the court, jacking up 9.9 3-pointers  — on pace to join Curry and James Harden as the third player in history to take at least 9.5 a night — and 21.2 shots per game, both of which are career highs.

Those averages aren’t just the result of playing at the quickest pace of his career, also standing as per 100 possessions career-highs. Despite a substantial increase in volume — Walker had never averaged more than 18.3 shots before this year — the former UCONN Husky is posting a career-best true shooting mark of 59.4 percent.

Pull-up 3s have become a staple in Walker’s arsenal over the past few years. In 2018-19, he’s burying 35.8 percent of his career-high 6.1 attempts per game, boogying around screens and harnessing yo-yo-master handles to shake free of defenders:

Developing this scoring weapon has been a slow simmer. It wasn’t until his third year that off-the-dribble treys outpaced his catch-and-shoot ones; 2016-17 was the first season the efficiency crept over 35 percent on more than 150 attempts. Now, it’s a chief reason he’s ranked above the 85th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler since 2016-17 and is second in points per possession this year (min. 100 possessions). Even more impressive is first-place Tobias Harris has only registered 102 pick-and-rolls, 131 fewer than Walker’s NBA-leading 233. The jitterbug-turned-point-guard is elite in both efficiency and volume.

When he’s not serving as a ball-handling tycoon, he’s lulling defenders into a daze and slipping behind subtle flare screens for open 3s (76th percentile, 1.17 PPP, off picks).

This is a new phenomenon for Walker. In 240 regular-season contests between 2015-16 and 2017-18, he registered 224 such plays. At his current pace (42 in 19 games), it would take just 102 games to match that total.

Beyond just flare screens, Charlotte is diagramming more screen-the-screener actions for its franchise centerpiece. With a quick trigger and the legs of a jackrabbit, enabling him to roam free and manufacture his own real estate when opponents aren’t entirely keyed in on him has proven resourceful:

Part of what makes Walker such a valuable offensive talent is his frugal nature. Juggling a 25-plus percent usage rate every year of his career, he’s yet to post a turnover rate north of 12.5 percent. This year, his duties have ballooned to 32.1 percent and yet the latter clip is still nestled slightly above 10 percent.

A backcourt star who can dominate and protect the ball to that degree is rare. It’s hard to specifically quantify its equity but Walker is currently one of seven players in league history to sport a usage rate above 30 percent and turnover frequency below 10.5 percent while averaging at least five assists per game. The others? Michael Jordan (7x), Tracy McGrady (5x), Irving (2x), Lillard (2x), Larry Bird and Allen Iverson. Up the benchmarks to his current levels and only Jordan (6x) and McGrady (2x) stand alongside him.

That’s a flood of words and numbers to highlight a simple point: Despite shouldering a titanic offensive burden, Walker hardly turns the ball over and those are skills emulated by a select bunch.

For all of Walker’s wizardry, his Hornets are still just stationed in the East’s eighth seed (third-best net rating, though) and ESPN’s Trade Machine has surely been weathered by hopeful NBA fans longing to see him on a true contender. Yet shipping him elsewhere would mean a reduction in his free-flowing, sovereign style of play. It’d usher in a new brand, one with fewer games where audiences are left with their jaws agape, marveling at Walker’s fourth-quarter pageantry. This version of an ever-captivating star would be traded in for one experiencing heightened team success. Even more, it’s not like he’s clamoring for a change of scenery.

“[I don’t] want to be nowhere else … You see guys who are on elite teams. I don’t want to do that,” Walker told reporters at media day in late September. “I want to create something special here in Charlotte, something that we have never had here before. I want to create some consistency. And I want to be a part of that.”

After knocking down a stepback 3 to clinch last week’s win over Boston, he pointed to his home court and declared, “this is my s**t.” And who could refute him? Walker leads the Hornets franchise in points and 3s made, is second in assists, minutes played and VORP, and is third in games played. He’s not even 29 and his closet is stocked with gold, silver and bronze medals. If he inks a long-term deal with the organization this summer, most of those will soon be gold. Just as Walker’s mystical crusade to the 2011 NCAA title has become synonymous with his athletic persona, so too could the teal and white of Charlotte.

Next: On a scale of one to basketball: Fultz scares me

Enjoying the best season of his career, Walker is happy in the Tar Heel State. While a host of teams covet his services, he and the Hornets appear content together. He is revered, already etched into Buzz City lore, and for Walker, that is basketball nirvana.

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