Kemba Walker headlined many lists of snubs from the 2016 All-Star Game. Despite leading his Charlotte Hornets to a playoff berth and averaging 20 points per game for the first time in his career, the then-fifth-year point guard didn’t get enough attention of voters or coaches to get his first All-Star bid.
Over the next two seasons, the league’s hype machine started paying attention to the UConn legend. Even though his game didn’t noticeably improve in those two seasons, he was deservedly chosen as an All-Star in both. Having developed into one of UConn’s strongest NBA alumni of all time at age 27, it seemed as if Walker had nowhere left to improve.
This season, though, Walker was tasked with far more responsibility than ever before. Despite having an influx of perimeter depth that Charlotte hadn’t seen since the days of Glen Rice and Dell Curry, the Hornets were modernizing their offense, and that meant their point guard would be responsible for everything that came with it—more three-pointers, more spacing, more risks, more aggressiveness, and it would all have to be faster.
The speed was always something that would play into his favor; even before reaching All-Star status, Walker was known as one of the quickest players in the league with stamina as good as anyone’s. The increased risks and aggressiveness were question marks; Walker had some of the best ball control in the NBA and rarely turned the ball over, but wasn’t known for making difficult passes, and didn’t have the close-range field goal percentage you’d like out of a lead guard. The increased threes were another issue entirely.
Although Walker’s three-point percentage had steadily increased until he had become a genuine threat from three, he wasn’t a particularly high-volume shooter from beyond the arc, at least not for a lead guard. And because he didn’t have a lot of teammates who could shoot, the responsibility came down to him—not just taking more shots from deep, but creating better outside opportunities for his teammates too.
So far, it’s worked. Taking more threes than ever before, Walker’s percentages have stayed in line with what first-year head coach James Borrego had hoped. The increase in volume has allowed him to get better opportunities inside the arc—he’s nearly eliminated the long two from his game, because he’s getting open shots a lot closer to the rim.
Meanwhile, his teammates are so much better with Walker in the game. On the floor, Walker and the Hornets have a .524 effective field goal percentage, about the same as the Portland Trail Blazers, who are currently sitting fourth in a stacked Western Conference. With Walker off the floor, his teammates have a .498 eFG%, about what the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers shoot.
The Hornets simply don’t have a lot of talent yet, which has raised Kemba’s stature in some NBA minds. But the Hornets’ relative shallowness meant the modernization would lead to riskier play, a drastic change from the team’s recent strategy, which was markedly very conservative before Borrego’s arrival. Though previous coach Steve Clifford was instrumental in Walker’s progression into a star—Kemba credits “Coach Cliff” with helping him stay motivated and focused, as well as pointing out specific strategies for improvement—he wasn’t going to be the guy who took the Hornets to the next level.
In more ways than one, the new strategies have paid off for Walker, who went from borderline All-Star to All-Star starter in just three years, but the biggest difference from then—and even when he was riding pine in All-Star Games—is how he makes his teammates better. Longtime teammate (and fellow UConn alumnus) Jeremy Lamb can attest to that; after struggling to find his place in the NBA for a few seasons, Lamb is having a career year next to Kemba in the starting lineup, currently averaging 15.2 points and 5.6 rebounds in 28.6 minutes per game, all career highs.
This year’s All-Star game, beyond being his first as a starter, will also be taking place in Charlotte. Walker will be participating in Saturday night’s 3-Point Contest at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, at 8:20 p.m., Kemba will be playing on Team Giannis in the main event.
The Hornets may still need to surround Walker with more help if he’s to lead them to playoff success, but he’ll take them as far as he can take them. Kemba has made the leap from good player to superstar, and the NBA has taken notice.