Kemba Walker is arguably the best scorer in all of college basketball. He's the go-to finisher on the No. 6 team in the country, a player so adept at attacking the rim that he scores on average more than all but one player in all of college basketball.
But because he's so good at scoring, the junior may not even be the best offensive option on his own team any more.
Walker has taken college basketball by storm this season, vaulting himself into the player-of-the-year narrative by scoring oodles of points (24.2 points per game, tied for second best in the NCAA) and lifting UConn's under-developed, uber-German crew into the NCAA elite.
Over the Huskies' first 10 games of the season, Walker was simply amazing, scoring over 26 points a game, shooting over 50% from the field with a 66.14 trueshooting percentage -- a measure of shooting efficiency that accounts for field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws -- and leading UConn to a 10-0 record.
But while Walker has continued to produce super-human scoring totals since -- he's averaging 22 points a game over the past 10 games, and his lowest scoring output (14 points against Marquette) came in a game in which he racked up nine assists -- the efficiency at which he gets his buckets has slowly crashed down to mere mortal standards.
Over the past 10 games Walker's FG% has tumbled to 37%, and his TS% to 47%. And take away blowout wins against DePaul and Rutgers (the Nos. 230- and 90-ranked defenses in the country, and 204th and 76th in adjusted defense) and the numbers fall to 35% FG%, with a TS% of 43.7%. (For comparison's sake, Austin Freeman leads the Big East with a 66.67 TS%; Walker is 37th overall at 54.96.)
Narrow it down even further, to the Huskies' past four games (admittedly, a really small sample size), and he has taken 74 shots (18.5 per game) and connected on just 32% of them, with a TS% of 42.9%.
Walker has always been a high usage-rate player -- he uses almost 32% of the Huskies' possessions, the 13th most in all of college basketball (an insanely high number for such a highly-rated team; only one other player in the top 50, Kentucky's Terrence Jones, is from a top-25 team) -- and for good reason: Although Jeremy Lamb has stepped up in a big way recently with five straight double-digit scoring efforts, no other UConn player is a real threat offensively. But even with better support, Walker is actually taking four more shots a game (despite averaging only five more minutes) and connecting on significantly fewer. So although he continues to rack up high point totals, he's doing so mostly because he's taking more shots, not because he's playing at an exemplary level.
So what's changed?
For starters, the competition. UConn's early-season schedule was mostly bakery-level stuff, and although Walker had equally good games in Maui against Kentucky, Michigan State and Wichita State, he did so at a neutral-site court the size of a high school game, in a very humid climate, in a different time zone, in November, over a three-day period -- all odd-ball factors that mitigate the weight in which we give those performances.
Over the past 10 games, however, the Huskies have played five teams currently ranked in the top 25 and three teams ranked in the top 25 in adjusted defense. And while it's easy to attribute his drop-off to simply playing better teams, Walker has struggled from the floor as much against Texas' top-ranked defense (8-for-27, 22 points) as No. 83 Marquette (5-for-16, 24 points). The quality of defenders surely plays some role in it -- it's easier to get around Evan Fjeld than Dogus Balbay -- but a large part of it is the type of defenses he's seeing. With teams fully aware of the offensive issues in the Huskies' supporting cast, Walker has and will be the focus of every opponent's gameplan. Especially when he tries to drive the lane.
In Maui, he was able to take his man off the dribble and get to the rim almost at will. Now? He can't even sniff the paint without two and sometimes three defenders crashing down on him. Which was in full view in UConn's trip to Austin, as the Longhorns used Balbay to harass Walker all game and collapsed even more defenders on him when he made his move toward the basket. And even more so on Saturday, as Louisville placed three players up top in their matchup zone late in the game and brought the Huskies' offense to a standstill.
UConn has tried to combat all the extra attention by moving Walker off the ball more often, using off-the-ball screens in the frontcourt and running Walker around the baseline, almost Ray Allen-like, to free him up. As a result, the junior has had to rely more on his jumper.
Problem is, that's not really his game. Walker has certainly improved in that area since his freshman year, during which he shot just 27% on 3s. But he's still not a pure shooter. Earlier in the season, the 3-pointer was just another part of his arsenal, a way to make defenses pay when they sagged to stop him from blowing by them. But instead of taking 3s because they're the best shot available, like he used to, he's now forcing and settling for them more often because he doesn't have as many options. Kemba's shot about one more 3-pointer a game over the past 10, but his 3P% is more than 16 points lower over the past 10 games (25.8%) than over the first 10 (42.1%).
Walker is at his best when he uses his speed to jitterbug his way into the lane and attack the rim. He's just not doing that any more. College shot-selection stats aren't made available to the public (at least, not that I'm aware of) and I didn't record the Louisville game ... but I re-watched Wednesday's win over Marquette and, by my count, just two of Walker's 16 shots came at the rim -- both on fastbreaks -- and only two more (a jumper and a leaner) came in the paint. And on Saturday, 10 of his 23 shots came from behind the arc, with only two going in. Whether it's defenses keeping him from doing so or the new, hybrid guard role he's been assigned to, or both, Walker simply isn't doing what he was born to do: attack. He's now using more possessions trying to do so, but he winds up wasting them on pull-ups and 3s because he can't find a way to get to the rim.
To counter such defenses, a team would normally look elsewhere and use all that extra attention on Walker to find opens shots for others. But UConn's rag-tag supporting cast on offense complicates things.
The extra attention on Walker has opened things up for some players. Lamb, most notably, has benefited, but so too has Roscoe Smith (six games with 8 points or more over the past 10) and, most recently, Shabazz Napier (23 points Saturday). What it hasn't done, though, is really provide a boost in the frontcourt. Alex Oriakhi can be a monster on the boards, but his offensive game still consists only of offensive putbacks and tip-ins. Tyler Olander has taken just two shots over the past four games, and that's probably best for everyone. And Charles Okwandu is tall. Oriakhi and Okwandu have played better in spots -- Oriakhi tallied four double-doubles over a five-game span (all wins), and Okwandu scored more than five points twice over the same time period (sigh) -- but none has really taken advantage of the breathing room on the blocks.
And Walker himself might be a little to blame here, too. While the junior is one of the best in the country at getting to the cup, he's still not as good a passer as his game might indicate. While his size dictates that his future lies at point guard, Walker is basically a score-first combo guard who still struggles to get everyone involved, as evidenced by his ho-hum assists numbers (4.3 apg). He's more Russell Westbrook than Steve Nash -- and there's nothing wrong with that. But with teams swarming him, the Huskies, and Walker, need to get more people involved, which is why you've seen Shabazz and Donnell Beverly on the ball more often.
So even though Walker is wasting more possessions, it seems as though letting him do so is UConn's best option, simply because they don't have anyone to give them to.
At least, that would've been the case five games ago.
While Walker gets all the glory as UConn's best player (and rightly so), Lamb is its most efficient. The freshman has shot 48.4% from the field over the season (second on the team to Oriakhi, whose 51.9 FG% is more a product of where and how he gets his shoots off) with an effective FG% (a measure that gives added weight to 3-pointers) of 53.7, easily tops on the team. He has also made an outrageous 57 percent of his 2-pointers, thanks in large part to a fancy-looking floater he makes virtually every time. Although he understandably struggled at the onset of first college season, hitting on just a third of his shots over his first six games, he's been the model of efficiency ever since, with a 52% FG% and a 60.7% TS% (which would be even better if he learned how to draw contact ... in due time, I suppose), thanks in large part to the attention Walker occupies.
Something the Huskies' staff has obviously noticed. In search of a second option to alleviate Walker's scoring burden, UConn has given Lamb more shots recently, and he's responded in a big way: Lamb has reeled off nine or more shots the past five games and averaged 17.6 points. And he's doing so without losing any of his efficiency, as he's shot 58% from the floor over that same span. Which proves that while the number of shots a player gets may vary, the efficiency at which he uses them is the true measure of his worth. Walker isn't a bad player -- far from it. But because of all the extra attention he's getting, he hasn't necessarily been an effective one over the past 10 games.
And yet, the Huskies continue to let him hoist up shot after shot, wasting valuable possessions looking to find a rhythm that just hasn't been there. Earlier in the season, the team would have been better off if Walker took every single shot. But because of the way teams play him now, he's not even the Huskies' best option. As long as he stays in this funk and can't find a way to get to the rim, allowing Walker to jack up those extra shots only helps himself put up gaudy scoring lines that keep the POY buzz coming. But the best thing for the team is to sacrifice some of his numbers and use all that extra attention to setup opportunities for Lamb.
The freshman with just 10 double-digit scoring efforts to his name doesn't have the same track record or panache as Walker. But each time Lamb's been given an opportunity, he's produced glowing results. And at this point, what do they have to lose? The Huskies are already wasting possessions by allowing Kemba to take questionable jumpers. Why not instead give them to the one player that, all things considered, has emerged as their most effective scorer?
The answer is an obvious one: Walker's relative struggles haven't really affected UConn's bottom line. Although the Huskies were perfect when Walker was an unstoppable force, they have cemented their status as an elite-level outfit even with Walker playing average ball, with three wins against top-25 teams (in Ken Pomeroy's rankings) over their past 10 games to prove it.
But over that same span, the Huskies have lost to just as many top-25 teams, and it's no coincidence that Walker took 23 shots or more in each of them and hit on just 34 percent. Although it has so far assembled a resume worthy of a national ranking and an NCAA tournament berth by playing Kemba-centric basketball, UConn's style of play could wind up hurting more than helping, especially with six games against top-25 teams awaiting over its final 10 regular-season games, and more to come in post-season tournament play.
The Huskies have far surpassed all expectations anyone had for this team coming into the season, and they'll likely continue to do so from hereon out. Despite early skepticism, they've proven they belong amongst the nation's elite. As has Walker, who will continue to be under the media's scope until UConn exits for good in March.
But the Huskies may be better off if their player of the candidate tries to play less like a Naismith winner and more like another player in the UConn system.