By Michael Pina
In the first playoff game of his career, Kemba Walker played like Kemba Walker. He scored 20 points (on 40 percent shooting), grabbed five boards and distributed six assists. He was solid on defense, launched a few unwise jumpers and made smart passes in the face of Miami's pressure defense.
This is who Walker is right now, the 23-year-old, second-best -- and second most important -- player on a playoff team. With three regular seasons in the books and his first playoff series underway, Walker finds himself in an intriguing position. He has unteachable physical ability (Dirty Harry reflexes, quickness, bee-line speed), but his production has flat-lined.
Walker showed zero statistical growth from his second season to this one. His scoring average went unchanged, down to the decimal (17.7 points per game). His PER, true shooting percentage and assist rate all slid, too.
This isn't exactly what the Charlotte Bobcats hoped for, but it's far too early to panic. Point guard is such a difficult position to understand, let alone master. On the floor, it's the brain for five bodies, requiring massive amounts of charisma, composure and intelligence at all times. Few players -- if any, not named Magic Johnson -- have entered the NBA knowing how to properly balance scoring and distribution right away. Understanding spacing and dictating tempo, too? No way. These skills are learned empirically. Lots of trial. Lots of error. Point guards live heavy, complicated professional lives (relative to other NBA players), and it's no coincidence they make up a large percentage of the league's 20 best players. Winning without one is hard, and teams with a good one never want to let him go.
On one hand, Walker's a career sub-40 percent shooter from the floor who's yet to sniff mediocre three-point accuracy. On the other, he's only 23 years old, has more career assists than Kyrie Irving and just led the NBA in touches per game while logging 36 minutes a night for a team that had the league's second best assist to turnover ratio. (On the other other hand, maybe comparing him to Irving -- another stagnated point guard -- isn't a good thing.)
There are logical outside forces at play to help explain why Walker is treading water instead of gliding upstream. The addition of low-post commander Al Jefferson has an obvious impact, and Walker also has the misfortune of operating in an unhurried system alongside players who are better associated with defense than offense.
(Imagine Walker on the Phoenix Suns, racing up the floor with stretch fives and fours all over the place, encouraged to push the pace and make decisions in the open floor. Current Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe is one year older than Walker and was more efficient this season. But he posted similar per game and per 36 minute figures.)
Let's start with Jefferson. The big man finished the year with the NBA's sixth-highest usage percentage. And he deserved it, as 12 percent of Charlotte's possessions were post-ups, and the Bobcats were the sixth-most efficient post-up team, per mySynergySports. (By comparison, only 11.1 percent was utilized in transition.)
Jefferson was the black hole many expected him to be, but leaning on him was clearly the right strategy. How did it affect Walker? He attempted more long twos and fewer shots in the restricted area than the previous season. This isn't a trend you want to see from any player who's still half a decade away from his prime, let alone your franchise point guard. (Interestingly enough, Walker actually attempted more shots at the rim with Jefferson on the floor than when he sat.)
Relative to other starting point men, Walker barely ever drives to the basket. His 6.1 drives per game rank 20th among starting point guards, and that doesn't include backups like Jeremy Lin, Will Bynum or Walker's own teammate, Ramon Sessions. But maybe this is a good thing? Walker shot a depressing 39 percent on those drives, second lowest among all 31 players in the league who drove as often. At just 6-foot-1, he hasn't yet learned how to consistently finish among trees at the rim. When layups are a coin flip, it's a problem.
The Bobcats are one of the 10 slowest teams in the league, but that's berthed from their understandable desire to control games with defense and rebounding (they ended the year ranked first in defensive rebound rate and sixth in defense). But sometimes Charlotte's possessions move slowly by accident after a set play crumbles, leaving Walker to create lemonade out of browning lemons.
But watch the tape and you'll see not all of it's because Jefferson's clogging the paint or Charlotte's offense is sputtering. A lot of Walker's shots occur far too early in the shot clock, with him dribbling off a screen and firing one up from the elbow before anything else can materialize. Over a quarter of all Walker's field goal attempts were long twos (between 16-23 feet) this year, up from last season's 18.9 percent. He shot 43.8 percent from that space last year, but that percentage made an inexcusable tumble down to 36.9.
Walker also finished the year with an effective field goal percentage below 40 percent on pull-up jumpers. That's better than DeMar DeRozan, John Wall and Bradley Beal, but worse than a ton of other guys. This year, the only players who attempted more per game were Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and John Wall.
It's a weird stat to get so particular about, but taking over seven shots off the dribble every night is difficult -- a skill reserved for guys who carry a special type of offensive burden. Walker isn't good enough for that burden today, but someday soon he might be.
Looking at his game from a bird's eye view, its clear he needs to trim the fat. Walker dribbles a lot and tends to be too fast for his own good. Sometimes, instead of embarrassing a defender, he'll put himself on ice skates, briefly losing his balance and allowing the frozen defender enough time to regroup. His handle already deserves leather seating and an automatic sunroof, but tidying up unnecessary mistakes would strap a grenade launcher to Walker's hood.
As a playmaker, Walker nearly has every physical tool (besides height) at his disposal. He's insanely fast, and he can rip into a defense's chest before kicking it out to an open teammate seemingly at will.
Here, he creates a wide open three-pointer after going between the legs to split Brooklyn's pick-and-roll coverage. Not easy.
He passes a ton and rarely turns it over, but it isn't "efficient" passing, if such a thing even exists. His 77.3 passes per game led the league this year, but only 12.2 accounted for an assist opportunity. In Game 1 against the Heat, Walker passed the ball 84 times but logged only six assists. (Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley had one more pass and five more assists.)
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It's not hard to picture Walker getting noticeably better over the next few seasons, but where has he already improved? Walker was much more efficient as an isolation scorer this year compared to last, averaging 0.99 points per possession, good for 21st in the league. His step back warps space and time, and all YouTube footage of him doing it to a helpless defender should come with a Parental Advisory warning.
Walker's December was gorgeous. He averaged 21 points per game (15 games) and was efficient from behind the three-point line on a respectable volume. This period of opulence happened to coincide with teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's injury. Kidd-Gilchrist might be the worst perimeter shooter in the league, and the way he crushes Charlotte's spacing is problematic for everyone.
Walker shot 41.2 percent from the floor without Kidd-Gilchrist and 35.8 percent with him playing. His field goal percentage in the restricted area jumped 11.1 percent, too. This could be a coincidence, but it probably isn't. Defenders basically ignore Kidd-Gilchrist, which means more attention is made to closing driving lanes and tightening any holes Walker might find useful.
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If your favorite team traded for Kemba Walker tomorrow, how would you feel? Elated? Nervous? Physically ill? Answering it obviously depends on who your favorite team is, but the point here is that Walker's statistical lull deserves context. He's a good, young player with clearly defined -- and hopefully correctable --weaknesses and high potential.
Charlotte was 3.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, and 5.6 points worse when he sat. Both led the team. Walker is set to make $3.2 million next year and is eligible for a long-term extension this summer. Should the Bobcats play the waiting game and let Walker hit restricted free agency (the likely option), they'll have one more season to gauge whether he can be their long-term option at point guard. If not, the Bobcats will look to acquire someone else via the draft, free agency or a trade.
They need a franchise point guard, but chances are they already have their man.
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