Kemba Walker’s Evolution Into the King of the Charlotte Hornets’ Hive

Feb 28, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) drives past Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroder (17) in the first quarter at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 28, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) drives past Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroder (17) in the first quarter at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports /

Just a year ago, Kemba Walker was labeled as being a bad shooter, but now he’s forcing defenses to change how the guard him and making the Charlotte Hornets better in the process.

It wasn’t just a perception issue for Kemba Walker.

When you’re as ineffective as Walker was, you aren’t forcing teams to guard you on the perimeter. Not only were defenders running under the screens on pick and rolls, you sometimes didn’t see any real urgency to close out on Walker on 3-pointers.

When players run under the screen, they slow down the roll man as well as putting themselves in a better position to stop the ball handler from driving to the basket.

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It wasn’t that Kemba couldn’t score — he averaged 17.3 points a game —  but according to Basketball Reference, he had a 30.0/42.3/30.4 split on distances from 10 to 16 feet, 16 feet to the 3-point line, and from 3-point range, respectively.

Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney interviewed the 6’1″ point guard in January about how he went about improving his shot, starting with just how rough it was a season ago for Walker.

"Everything for Kemba Walker begins with the jumper. The most indelible image of his basketball career is that of a limber stepback, managed with enough grace to keep Walker on balance and his defender at a distance. There is no sharper weapon that a 6’1″ guard can deploy in a league of giants. The jumper serves him well.Not well enough, though, for Walker to yet be content. Last season, 210 NBA players finished the year with at least 100 made jump shots. Walker ranked 178th among them in effective field goal percentage on those attempts—his volume scoring ways beset by inefficiency. A spacing-challenged Hornets roster did him no favors, but Walker compounded his problems with his own spatial limitations. Consistent shooting beyond 20 feet eluded him. As a result, Charlotte’s offense was compromised by the fact that defenders needed to respect Walker’s jumper only to a point. That specific quirk gave defenses more room for error on any possession when Walker had the ball in his hands and free rein to wander on any occasion he didn’t."

With Kemba being such a non-threat from distance, it allowed the defense to go under screens, something Walker picked up on and that drove him to improve his shooting.

Other than those deep 2-point shots, that isn’t going to strike fear into defenses, and it showed in how they defended the pick and roll. Last year when Charlotte played the Pacers, George Hill went under the screen and Roy Hibbert sagged off, just like many teams guarded it.

Kemba-Last-Season-FS /

Though that’s where he started, Walker’s improvement started in June when shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer began overhauling the point guard’s shot, starting from square one. Mahoney details how Kreutzer worked with Walker to fix the way he lifted up on his jump shots, eliminating a backward drift, adjusting his shooting form slightly, all of which combined for a purer shot.

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Since then, he’s taken a big leap forward with his shooting numbers. He went from 38.5 percent from the field to 42.5 percent while upping his percentage on 3-pointers from 30.4 percent to 36.5 percent. That’s simply taking yourself from a place where you were knocked as a bad shooter to being a reliable one.

Last year when Kemba pulled up for a 3-pointer, a defense could reliably slack off and not be punished. Now if they do that, it is just about as bad of an idea of letting Damian Lillard or Paul George take one.

On and those deeper distances that Kemba struggled from? He’s now shooting a very solid 39.8/36.5/36.5 split.

Against the Indiana Pacers, we saw more than once how he forced the defense to switch to give Kemba a mismatch. The screens the other Charlotte Hornets set for Walker were solid, but what helped create them was the fact Indiana had to respect that Kemba can now make those shots.

Kemba-Time-FS /

Being a more reliable threat also helps his teammates. The defense can’t just run under picks now and let Walker shoot, now they’re forced to play a tighter brand of defense, one that also opens themselves up to mistakes.

Bad-PnR-FS /

Myles Turner doesn’t play the best defense here, but the issue of how Hill has to play Kemba is the same. Once he gets caught chasing, Cody Zeller rolls to the basket and Turner is nowhere near in position to defend him.

During the 2014-15 season, defenses were often running under screens or sagging off of Kemba on the perimeter. Last season you could live with that as less than one out of three attempts went in on average. Now he makes more than one of three attempts, and that forced the defense to make a choice.

According to Mahoney, in January Synergy Sports had Walker shooting 37.5 percent when players went under those screens. And by forcing them to go over them, as we saw  Hill was forced to do time and time again, he creates mismatches with bigger players and creates more room to operate for himself and his teammates.

Kemba Walker 2015-16 Shot Chart | PointAfter

Outside of the fixes to his shot, this evolution to Kemba’s game was driven by several factors. At 25, he’s hitting the prime years of his playing career where his physical attributes are peaking and he’s getting more and more playing experience and knowledge at the NBA level. Another part of it has been the Hornets are just a better-equipped team this season.

Gone is Lance Stephenson, who needs the ball in his hands to be dominant, and in his place is Nicolas Batum. Instead of trying to share the court with someone who needs the ball as much as he does, Walker is now working with a complimentary player, and a very good one at that.

While the usage rates are similar to last season — with Batum taking the place of Stephenson here — the way Walker can play has changed entirely. He’s no longer a passive participant at times, he’s now the unquestioned leader of the offense.

Kemba Walker Career Shooting Percentages | PointAfter

The Hornets are still a work in progress, but a much better one than last season’s edition. This year’s 102.8 offensive rating and 101.7 defensive rating — that’s a net rating of plus-1.2 — isn’t amazing, but it is a huge improvement over the 2014-15 squad’s 97.6/101.0/minus-3.4 split.

Despite being one of the Hornets best players, last year Walker’s net rating was minus-4.6; this year it is plus-1.6, a full five points better. Walker now averages 20.5 points a game while only taking one more shot a game than he did last season.

All of this has led to the Charlotte Hornets being 30-28, in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, and no longer a pushover for the rest of the NBA.

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There is little doubt the Al Jefferson is this team’s veteran leader, but with Walker’s shooting making vast improvements, the Hornets can plan for the future, and make Kemba the king of the hive.