Kemba Walker, at age 27, with a full season remaining on just his second contract, is the greatest player in the history of the Charlotte Hornets franchise. The All-Star point guard made history this week — passing Dell Curry, the godfather of Charlotte basketball, to become the all-time leading scorer Hornets history.
It was an emotional night in uptown, and the outpouring of love and support — both from Kemba and the city that surrounds him — was something to behold. It is his throne now; Kemba has G.O.A.T. status when it comes to this franchise, and the 9,841 career points he’s amassed only tell part of that story.
Adrift but not without a life vest
The Hornets are in the midst of another lost season; Charlotte, now 34-42, has fallen short of preseason expectations. Injuries, no doubt, played a role; the absence of Cody Zeller (just 33 games this season) is especially noticeable.
Late-game woes on offense for the first 60 or so games of the season were a serious killer, too. (That’s improved drastically over the last month, though: Charlotte ranks 7th in the NBA in clutch offense over the last 15 games.)
However, with only a handful of games to play, Charlotte finds itself between a rock and a hard place — capped out, with the playoffs a borderline impossibility (less than one percent), and destined to pick between 10-12 in this summer’s draft.
This is exactly where a franchise shouldn’t want to find itself, especially in a smaller market: the infamously dreaded treadmill of the NBA. No shot at postseason glory (and gate receipts), and bad odds at landing a potential franchise player.
All of this team’s stakeholders — players, coaches, fans, whatever — have reasons to check-out mentally. Except you can’t do that — not yet, at least. Not when No. 15 is still out there running through brick walls and doing otherworldly things on a nightly basis. You owe him that much.
For a man that plays with impeccable style, Kemba Walker’s game is all substance.
Flash and Flare
On offense, Kemba Walker is endlessly fun; a never-ending flow of hesitation dribbles, in-and-outs, crossovers, and step-back jumpers. Big dudes that switch onto him after a ball screen know they need to batten down the hatches in an effort to avoid landing on the wrong side of a YouTube clip.
With those handles, plus his ability to hit pull-up 27-footers with the best of them (Curry, Lillard), Kemba’s game is perfectly tailored for the modern NBA. It also makes him one of the most enjoyable basketball players to watch in the entire world.
It’s more than the crossovers (which are awesome) and jaw-dropping highlights when it comes to Kemba, though. All of that is a testament to this guy’s work and incredible improvement; it’s helped him evolve into a perennial All-Star in the Eastern Conference.
But it also leaves out a key ingredient. Night after night, Kemba continues to push — to try and desperately will this team to a win, and the franchise to relevancy. He rides for Charlotte for the Bronx, his hometown, and for the Hornets.
For the second year in a row, Kemba ranks inside the top three of the NBA in terms of charges (24) drawn — a statistic that’s mostly dominated by big dudes hanging around the paint. He also ranks top 20 in the league in terms of and-ones.
The Captain leads the Hornets in usage rate: 27.8 percent. In the fourth quarter, though, that jumps to 35 percent — eighth highest in the NBA, on par with LeBron, James Harden and DeMar DeRozan.
Point Differential: The Weight of the World
As evidenced by that high usage rate, Charlotte’s offense is deeply Kemba-centic; for stretches of time, the action on the floor seems to be: “Hey, Kemba: Please go do stuff.” And when he’s on the floor, good things happen; as soon as he sits, though, look out.
In Kemba’s 2,574 minutes this season, Charlotte has scored 110 points per 100 possessions — basically the rate of a top-five NBA offense. When Kemba hits the bench, that efficiency rate drops quickly: 98.7 points per 100 possessions, which would rank as one of the worst offenses of the last three seasons of NBA action. (He’s able to do all of this despite, too, the constant traps and double teams off ball screens from every opponent the Hornets play.)
Without adjusting for pace, the Hornets are +238 with Kemba on the court this season. When he sits, that drops to -201. This is insane. Kemba also has a positive net rating with every two-man lineup combination on Charlotte’s roster — save for one (Malik Monk).
That type of jaw-dropping differential puts him in some pretty notable company, too.
On-off OffRtg leaders (team's OffRtg w/ player on floor – w/ player off floor)…
1. Stephen Curry (14.4)
2. Kemba Walker (11.4)
3. Karl-Anthony Towns (10.9)
4. Bobby Portis (10.5)
5. Russell Westbrook (9.9)
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) March 20, 2018
If this looks or sounds familiar, don’t worry — you aren’t in a fugue state. This was the same trend a season ago, when the Hornets scored 109 points per 100 with Kemba on and right at one point per possession when he sat.
Of course, a part of this also has to do with the players backing up Kemba; while filling out the roster on the margins the last two seasons, the backup point guard role has been occupied by Ramon Sessions and Michael Carter-Williams. It, uh, didn’t go great for either player.
To shoulder this weight on offense, while also being tasked with guarding thousands of ball screens — fighting over and around an unending supply of picks from humans beings much larger than he is — on the other end of the floor is remarkable.
One of the most fun aspects of tracking the Hornets is watching Kemba Walker cook out of the pick-and-roll. He’s turned this function of his game into artwork.
In 2017-18, only MVP-candidate Damian Lillard has scored more points (768) out of the pick-and-roll than Kemba (755), according to Synergy Sports. Related to that: no player in the NBA has run more PNR possessions than Walker (733).
Over 50 percent of Kemba’s possessions this season have come out of the pick-and-roll; again, this just highlights how dependent the Hornets are on him to generate offense. Charlotte, to survive, needs Kemba to bomb over the top of opposing defenses.
According to Synergy, Kemba is tied with LeBron for third in the NBA in efficiency out of the pick-and-roll: 1.03 points per possession. Only the very much woke Kyrie Irving (1.1) and Dame Lillard (1.07) rank higher.
Few players can strike as much fear in a defense from a 26 feet away, out of a simple horns set, as Kemba Walker.
Shooting off the bounce
Prior to the season, a frequent topic of conversation amongst those who cover the team was: Can Kemba repeat what he did a season ago — 23.2 points, 5.5 assists and 39.9 3P%? The answer to that is an emphatic yes.
For the season, Walker is only a shade under 40 percent on three-pointers. Only James Harden of the go-go Houston Rockets has more three-point field goals than Kemba (224).
Kemba is deadly off the catch: 86-of-207, 41.5 3P%. However, what makes him so special is the ability to hit from off the dribble — sprint around a pick, stop on a dime, rise and fire. According to NBA.com tracking data, Kemba is 137-of-359 on pull-up three-point attempts: 38.2 3P%, tied for fifth in the NBA with Harden and Chris Paul.
(Last season, Kemba went 138-of-363 (38 3P%) on pull-ups.)
Only 28 percent of Kemba’s field goal attempts are at the rim this season — down from 37 percent last season, per Cleaning The Glass. There’s a great reliance on the three-ball, no doubt. But Kemba can still put this head down and jet past anyone.
Wall off the rim — as Joel Embiid does here — and Kemba will counter with a floater before he hits those trees. (Also, look at that hesi he hits Dario Saric with.)
History Made in NC: Kemba Walker style
On Wednesday night, Charlotte suffered another loss to LeBron and the Cavs; LeBron, who scored 41, has now won 22 straight regular season games against the Hornets. However, LeBron’s dominance in Year 15 isn’t the story here.
In the final seconds of the game, Kemba Walker drove and hit a reverse layup that gave him 21 points on the night, and the Hornets scoring record. The Spectrum Center lit up, his mom (omnipresent for Hornets games) cheered, Dell Curry stood proudly to applaud. For a moment, everything in North Carolina’s checkered history of professional basketball seemed right.
Thankfully, Kemba accomplished this feat in front of the home crowd — his fans, damnit — and not Saturday afternoon in Washington.
After the game, Kemba broke into tears. “I’m not supposed to be here,” he told ace reporter Stephanie Ready. (And I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get a little dusty in the #LeaguePassLair.)
“I’m not supposed to be here.”
This guy. This moment. Wow. Kemba Walker, ladies and gentlemen. pic.twitter.com/dJkonbpwft
— Charlotte Hornets (@hornets) March 29, 2018
After all he’s been through — just to make it to this point is amazing. Who knows what the future holds for Kemba in Charlotte. Trade rumors swirled around the team’s franchise player at the February deadline; after years of playing below market value, his contract expires in the summer of 2019. The Hornets don’t have the roster to contend now; the future is cloudy, too. Charlotte’s books are clogged until at least 2019 (Dwight), when it has to resign Kemba, or 2020 (Marvin Williams).
Kemba and Charlotte could work out an extension this summer — four years, $64 million — but that’s almost certainly not happening. Not with a deserved payday looming on the horizon.
Those, however, are thoughts and concerns for tomorrow. In the meantime, let’s just enjoy what’s directly in front of our faces. Kemba Walker, exactly where he’s supposed to be, achieving greatness.