We’re less than 10 percent of the way through the NBA season. It’s somewhere between irresponsible and silly to start handing out MVP recognition. It feels especially premature when Kawhi Leonard — a popular preseason pick for the award — is yet to even play.
So far, the league-wide early-season MVP conversation has centered on Milwaukee’s extraterrestrial Giannis Antetokounmpo. That’s warranted, too; he’s been absurdly good, although Charlotte held him in check Wednesday night. Out in LA, Blake Griffin has been on a rampage, too.
With all of that said, it’s time to throw another name into this hat: Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Hornets. Because mother of god, Kemba is so damn good. His importance to this roster, especially as the team battles a mangled web of injuries, is a challenge to quantify. However, let’s give it a shot.
Commence the way-too-early analysis!
Kemba Walker: What a difference one dude makes
Charlotte’s captain has played 278 minutes in the first eight games of the season. In that span of time, the Hornets have scored 112.7 points per 100 possessions — the rate of a top-two offense. The Hornets have allowed just 98 points per 100 possessions. Of course it helps that Kemba plays a lot with Dwight Howard and Michael Kidd Gilchrist, but he’s a solid defender, and that’s the rate of a No. 1 defense.
The Hornets outscore opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions with Kemba on, and when he sits, Charlotte gets outscored by the rate of 24 points per 100 possessions. This is an astronomical gap, one that’s reserved for the NBA’s royalty — LeBron, Curry, Westbrook and Harden. Charlotte’s nearly 40 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off.
Without adjusting for pace, Charlotte’s outscored opponents by 72 points with Kemba on the court. That factors in a minus-8 he put up on Wednesday against Milwaukee, when the bench mob, led by Malik Monk, finally came through.
When he sits, however, the Hornets have been by 57 points in only only 106 minutes of action. This is some Russell Westbrook 2016-17 type stuff.
With Nic Batum on the mend, Steve Clifford has relied on Kemba as his first and second option in initiating offense. That’s a Herculean ask, but he’s delivered. According to NBA.com, Charlotte has played nine different lineups at least 10 minutes this season. Kemba is featured in seven of those. Every single one of those lineups scores at least 105 points per 100 possessions, and only one of them has a negative net differential.
Got them in the scope
As I’ve discussed in this space before, Kemba Walker has become one of the best range shooters in the world. Steph Curry is tops; after that, though, Kemba is in the discussion for next best with Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving.
It’s how Kemba does this, though, that makes it so impressive. It’s not just the fact that he frequently has to contend with teams throwing big, long-limbed defenders at him. The distance and accuracy from deep off the bounce make Kemba Walker a super rare player
Only five players in the NBA have attempted at least 30 pull-up three-pointers the season. In terms of three-point percentage, Kemba currently rates No. 1 in the group. The company here is incredible: Steph Curry, James Harden, Eric Gordon and Damian Lillard — the closest facsimile to Kemba in the league.
Opponents simply can’t go under screens with Kemba and not expect to be burned — those days are days are over. Just ask his good buddy and Bobcat legend Bismack Biyombo.
New paint job
A new and perhaps even more impressive development for Kemba Walker, given his height and build: paint scoring.
According to Cleaning The Glass, 34 percent of Kemba’s attempts have come at the rim — within four feet of the hoop. That’s a similar rate to last season (33 percent), but his accuracy from that range is on pace to be a career-best. Walker is 25-of-42 on attempts at the rim — 60 percent. That’s up from 54 percent in 2016-17.
The other night against Orlando, Walker put on a display at the rim. In a span of less than three minutes, Walker scored four times within two feet of the hoop.
That wasn’t bad, but on the very next possession — yo, someone ask Shelvin Mack how much fun he had on this roller coaster.
A-Boogie wit da Pick-and-Roll
In 2016-17, only James Harden scored more points out on the pick-and-roll than Kemba (945). This season Kemba has slightly dialed back his pick-and-roll usage, but increased his efficiency. Dwight Howard deserves a lot of praise here, too; together those two have formed one of the most dynamic 1-5 PNR combinations in the league.
50.6 percent of the possessions Kemba’s used this season have come out of PNR — down from 54.9 percent a season ago. Walker scores 1.2 points per possession on these looks — No. 4 in the NBA amongst players that run at least five per game. His effective field goal rate of 60 percent is also No. 4 in the NBA.
Part of the improvement: Kemba gets to the line more frequently. After drawing a shooting foul on only 8.3 percent of his PNR possessions last season, Kemba has upped that to 11.8 percent this season.
Free 99? FREE 99
Kemba Walker isn’t the bootleg king, but he knows a thing or two about getting to the line. Walker has attempted 64 free throws — fifth most in the NBA
Walker has made 59 free throws, which is tied with Boogie Cousins for No. 1 in the NBA. He’s the first player in franchise history since Larry Johnson in 1995-96 to make at least 50 free throws in the first eight games of the season.
Hornets play-by-play man Eric Collins refers to Kemba as Captain Clutch for a reason — the dude is money late in games. In Clutch situations — under five minutes to play, game within five points — Kemba has a team-leading usage rate of 32 percent.
In these minutes, Charlotte outscores foes by nearly 54 points per 100 possessions. That’s good for third best in the league amongst players with a usage rate of at least 25 percent. Other high-usage All-Star guards can’t say the same. DeMar DeRozan (-60.4 points per 100), Kyrie Irving (-29 points per 100), and Russell Westbrook (30.9 points per 100).