Kemba Walker's first four NBA seasons were all about the same. He put up some nice scoring totals, but it always took him a lot of shots to get there. Every now and then, Walker blew up with a big game or showed up on SportsCenter's top 10 with a slick crossover or smooth step-back jumper, but he was ultimately taking the shots his opponents wanted.
His shooting percentages reflect that weakness. Walker shot just 30 percent from deep last season and just 33 percent the year before.
He therefore didn't command any respect from the perimeter, which allowed opponents to sag off him and go under screens. In doing so, they were able to take away Walker's slick dribble moves. It's hard to cross up a defender standing five feet away. It's hard to knife into the paint if it's being walled off.
So, Walker dedicated the offseason to improving his jumper.
As he told Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney, he noticed that he was launching the ball from in front of his face and worked with new shooting coach Bruce Krueutzer to realign his release slightly off to the right. Also, he occasionally faded back when shooting.
Walker fixed both issues, and now, the numbers speak for themselves. He's putting career-highs across the board: 20.1 points, 43 percent shooting from the field and 38 percent from deep. Yet he's as aggressive as ever, taking the same number of shots and getting to the foul line at a similar rate. He's even shooting from the same spots on the floor. The only difference is those shots are actually going in now.
These improvements create a chicken-and-egg effect.
Walker is shooting better, so opponents are guarding him in a way that allows him to get better shots, which in turn allows him to connect on a higher percentage.
Some teams are still using the old scouting report and getting burned. The San Antonio Spurs, who love daring non-shooters to beat them from the outside, still elected to show hard on this Walker pick-and-roll. Rather than continue their coverage, though, they left Walker unguarded behind the three-point line for a second.
That might have worked in the past, but not now. Walker's three-point shooting from the top of the key is up to 47 percent after tumbling to 35 percent last year. His percentage on pull-up three-pointers like the one above has climbed from 26 to 33, via NBA.com.
Many teams have caught on to Walker's improved outside shooting. But by pressuring him up top, they're actually playing into his hands.
"Some teams are going over screens a lot more and other aspects of the game are just opening up for me," Walker told Sports Illustrated. "I'm able to create a lot more, make a pass for my teammates so that they can make another play. Things are definitely a lot more open for me."
That's when Walker is at his best. His improved shooting just makes it easier to ultimately use his slick handle to knife into the paint for his crafty array of finishes.
"If you watch him, on most of his really good possessions, he makes it hard for [the defender] to really get into his body, Clifford told Sports Illustrates. "He's got pivots or he's got fakes with the ball, and if he wants to come this way he'll move the defender the other way."
Walker can now actually use his dribble to lose his primary defender on the screen and loft difficult shots softly over the trees in the paint.
Finishing around the basket has been an issue for Walker because of his size, but he's fixed that problem too. He's hitting 52 percent of shots from less than eight feet away, a six percent uptick from last season, per NBA.com. He's also finishing on a greater percentage of his drives.
It's no coincidence these improvements are coming after the Charlotte Hornets acquired Nicolas Batum.
Batum and Walker have quickly developed a level of chemistry that some pairs take years to reach. Batum allows Walker to share the court with another ball-handler, but one who prefers to facilitate instead of score. Many Hornets possessions begin with Walker bringing the ball up the floor, quickly dishing it off to Batum at the top of the key and then sprinting into some off-ball movement designed to get him the ball again.
Walker at his heart is a scorer, not a pure point guard. His first instinct is to search for his own points, and Batum allows him to do so. Batum is one of the best in the league at sucking in a defense before zipping the ball cross-court to an open teammate.
Walker is connecting on 10 percent more of his catch-and-shoot looks this year, according to NBA.com. More to the point, Batum has already assisted on 36 of Walker's field goals, per NBA.com. Last year, no Hornets assisted Walker on more than 26.
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It might have taken a little longer than the Hornets hoped, but Walker has finally figured out his place in the NBA. He's never going to a bastion of efficiency, but these tweaks may lead to an All-Star Game appearance or, more importantly, a Hornets playoff run.