This article was first published on SLAMonline.com
Kemba’s game improved by leaps and bounds last season. Expect even more in ’17-18.
By Alex Squadron
There is one time every year when you are guaranteed to see a lot of Kemba Walker.
It’s during March’s Big East Tournament, when teams are fighting for a championship berth at the Garden. Scroll through your Twitter and IG timelines and you’re bound to see a video of one of the most disrespectful moves in recent basketball memory, courtesy of Cardiac Kemba.
Less than 15 seconds remain in the quarterfinals of the 2011 tourney, and UConn and Pittsburgh are knotted at 74. Walker comes off a high ball screen, gets the switch, and implores his teammates to spread the floor. With center Gary McGhee on an island, Kemba crosses over and unleashes a step back that turns McGhee’s legs into jello. Then he buries the buzzer beater.
Aside from those obligatory throwback posts, however, you don’t see enough of Kemba Walker. In an NBA loaded with talented point guards, his face tends to get lost in the crowd. When you hear people talk about the elite backcourt players in the L, how often is Walker’s name mentioned?
Of course, it doesn’t help that he plays for a team—the Charlotte Hornets—that has reached the postseason just twice in his six seasons there (never advancing farther than the first round) and rarely gets the national TV nod.
None of that has deterred the 27-year-old rising star. He just keeps on improving and taking ankles.
While a respectable defender, it’s Kemba’s skills on the other end that makes him so dangerous. Play him close, and you might end up like McGhee, watching from the ground as he drives past. Give him space, and he can knock down the open mid-range or outside shot. I think he might even have a hesi pull-up jimbo in his arsenal.
Still, it’s efficiency that separates the good scorers from the great scorers; and though Kemba clearly had all the tools, he struggled to deliver consistently during his first five NBA seasons. He’d have games where everything was clicking, and finish 11-15 from the field. But there were far too many 2-11 or 5-18 nights in the mix.
That changed in 2016-17. Thanks in part to slight tweaks to his jumper, he emerged as the “to be expected” version of Kemba. With a career-high usage rate (29.2), Walker also achieved career-bests in points per game (23.2), field goal percentage (44 percent), and three-point percentage (40 percent). The Hornets’ leader dropped 30+ in 15 outings, was sixth in the League in total long balls (240), and got named to his first All-Star team.
If that trend continues, then Kemba will keep on climbing SLAM’s Top 50 list.
Charlotte added center Dwight Howard and sniper Malik Monk this summer, which should only help Walker take another step forward. Howard sets big screens that free up space for ball handlers and Monk spreads the floor as a deep threat. That means more driving lanes and cleaner looks for Kemba.
In a recent interview with HoopsHype, another young point guard, Orlando’s Elfrid Payton, named his list of the toughest guys to guard in today’s NBA: Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and Kemba Walker.
Take it from Payton, who has to face Kemba four times every season.
When you talk about the elite backcourt players in the L, Walker’s name should be mentioned.
Alex Squadron is a reporter for the NY Post. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
2016: No. 36
2015: Not Ranked
2014: Not Ranked
2013: Not Ranked
Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2017-18—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.
No. 50 – Dion Waiters
No. 49 – Ben Simmons
No. 48 – Brook Lopez
No. 47 — Harrison Barnes
No. 46 — Jrue Holiday
No. 45 — Lonzo Ball
No. 44 — Myles Turner
No. 43 — Goran Dragic
No. 42 — Andre Drummond
No. 41 — Al Horford
No. 40 — LaMarcus Aldridge
No. 39 — Kevin Love
No. 38 — Paul Millsap
No. 37 — Hassan Whiteside
No. 36 — Andrew Wiggins
No. 35 — Marc Gasol
No. 34 – DeAndre Jordan
No. 33 — Bradley Beal