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Kemba Walker should be an NBA All-Star. He’s earned it

In a crowded point guard field, Walker has earned the right to be the first Charlotte rep at the All-Star Game since 2010.

Toronto Raptors v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Kemba Walker is averaging 23 points, 5.4 assists, and four rebounds for a playoff contender, while shooting over 41 percent from behind the arc. His numbers are strong, but the context in which he accumulates them is even more impressive.

Like a lot of other point guards in the spread pick-and-roll era, he soaks up a ton of Charlotte’s offensive possessions, and like the very best ones, he’s earned rave reviews from teammates and coaches about his unselfish play.

“The beauty of him is he has the ability to draw the help defender and make the right play,” coach Steve Clifford said. “He’s always been good at it. He has good feel for it. Some guys get determined to score anyway. He’s never been like that. As long as he’s willing to make the right play, which is one of his strengths, then we’re good to go.”

Clifford and company also know how vital Walker is to the team’s success. The Hornets are 5.6 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when Walker is on the court, and 5.4 points worse when he’s not. The Hornets are not the league’s most dynamic team in terms of individual offensive talent, but they are rich in smart players who understand how to play with their star. As Cody Zeller put it: “Defenses are so keyed in on stopping him that it opens up a lot of stuff for the rest of us.”

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Washington Wizards Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Zeller is a good example. The two are usually pick-and-roll partners and they play almost all of their minutes together. When Walker is on the floor with him, Zeller gets looks from the mid-range to the rim, generating 109.7 points per 100 possessions. That number dips to 97.6 when Waller is not on the court, and Zeller has attempted exactly one shot outside of the paint without Walker in the game.

Small sample size or not, the Hornets are simply a different team without Walker, and not a very good one either. He relishes the responsibility.

“I wouldn’t call it pressure,” Walker told SB Nation. “I’ve never tried to play with ‘pressure.’ I definitely have a lot to do with how this team goes. I definitely know how important I am to my teammates. I have to set the tone for my team and I do take a lot of responsibilities in our losses. A lot of it does fall on my shoulders, just being one of the team leaders and being one of the better players on the team. That’s just how it goes.”

Walker has the numbers and he has the respect, and that’s why the NBA rewarded him by naming him to the East All-Star team. It’s well deserved.

There were two main obstacles to this All-Star honor. The first is that there are a lot of quality point guards in the East and not a lot to separate them from each other. A fair case could have been made that all of them -- Walker, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall -- deserved to be in New Orleans along with Kyrie Irving. In the end, the NBA agreed.

East All-Star guard candidates

Player PPG TS% PER NRtg differential Fan vote finish
Player PPG TS% PER NRtg differential Fan vote finish
Kyrie Irving 24.5 57.7 22.3 5.7 1
DeMar DeRozan 27.9 55.6 25.0 -8.5 3
Isaiah Thomas 28.9 61.5 26.9 -0.2 4
John Wall 23.1 55.0 23.7 12.4 7
Kyle Lowry 23.0 63.0 23.2 12.6 5
Kemba Walker 22.3 57.8 22.0 10.0 9
Stats via Basketball-Reference and NBA.com

Despite his awesome stats, there isn’t one specific thing that makes Walker stand out among this crowded field. Lowry has the edge in all the metrics and in the standings. Wall is far and away the conference’s premier playmaker. Thomas, meanwhile, is a better scorer and this year’s premier fourth quarter bucket getter.

That Walker matches up well with all of them is his greatest achievement. He’s earned the right to be in their class. So, while it might be odd to have almost half the 12-man roster play the same position, who cares? It’s an All-Star Game. And the NBA agreed.

The Hornets are obviously thrilled. They unveiled an ingenious marketing campaign starring Walker as the old Chuck Norris character, which is about as close to self-promotion as he’ll ever get.

That was other issue, if it can be called that. The only one who didn’t seem to really care about the All-Star nod is Walker himself.

“It’s been out there,” Walker said. “It’s been said a lot all year long. It sounded good when we were in fourth place but now, right now, we’re not. If it happens it would definitely be an honor. If not, hey, what can I do? My goal and our team’s goal right now is win as many games as possible and secure a playoff spot.”

This is Walker’s default mode of response to questions about his individual success. It makes for a strong team leader, but it doesn’t do much for his relative popularity. He finished a distant ninth in the fan vote and his fellow players had him seventh. From the media, he received exactly one vote. (Full disclosure: It wasn’t mine. I had Thomas and Lowry.)

When I asked him to expound on how well he’s been playing -- the high-brow version of the please talk about yourself question -- he responded, “I’m not sure. I think I’m playing the same way I played last year, honestly. Right now I’m just focused on getting the win and ending this losing streak. Individually doesn’t really matter at this point. I just want to get a win.”

Los Angeles Lakers v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

All of that is admirable and consistent with his basketball world view. Walker is steady and unflappable both on the court and off. The Bronx native exudes New York cool and self-assuredness. Some may interpret that as a dour disposition, but he’s always like that. (Indeed, one of my colleagues asked Zeller if Walker was feeling down and Zeller suggested jokingly that he’d give him a pep talk. “Nah,” Zeller said. “He’s fine.”)

Walker is no one-year phenom either. His success has been several years in the making. He arrived in the league fresh off a championship run at Connecticut, where he established his bonafides as a big-shot maker and taker. He became a solid contributor right away and a starter by the end of his rookie season. As his game has risen, so have the Hornets. He was there during their disastrous 7-59 campaign, and he’s been a fixture of their revival under Clifford.

A minor flaw in his shooting stroke prevented him from taking the next leap, but long hours in the gym with shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer fixed his stroke and the results have followed. Last season was his breakout campaign, and this year he’s become even more efficient. It’s not just from long range either: Walker is getting to the basket more and finishing at an even higher rate.

“When I first came into the league he wasn’t as big of a threat from the 3-point line, but now he can do a little bit of everything,” Zeller said. “He’s really become a full player.”

Kemba Walker is now also an All-Star. He’s earned it.