Kemba Walker’s MVP-caliber month will force the Charlotte Hornets to do some soul searching
Coming off consecutive All-Star appearances, Charlotte Hornets PG Kemba Walker has generated substantial MVP buzz a month into the 2018-19 season. In 16 games, Walker is leading the league averaging 29.6 points per game, as well as career highs in assists (6.1) and rebounds (4.4). Despite his individual play, he is mired with an injured and underperforming roster that might not even make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Walker is putting up huge numbers on a middling team, and his blazing hot start will force a difficult question in Charlotte: pay him or trade him?
2 games, 103 points.— SLAM (@SLAMonline) November 20, 2018
Kemba’s giving Buzz City a whole lotta buckets. 🌃 pic.twitter.com/J6YVJ7jiSV
There are a number of reasons for Walker’s career year, but the biggest one is that he is the only standout on a painfully mediocre Charlotte squad. In Walker’s recent 60-point game against the Philadelphia 76ers, the All-Star was a model of efficiency shooting 61.7%. The rest of the team, however, scored just 59 points on 32.3% shooting in Charlotte’s three-point OT loss against the Sixers. The next highest scorer was (the underrated) Jeremy Lamb with 20 points. The explanation for Walker’s recent explosion is simple: he is by far Charlotte’s best player and their only true offensive threat.
Perhaps motivated by his upcoming free agency, Walker’s numbers could be attributed to his aggressiveness in finding his shot, as well as having few offensively talented teammates capable of creating shots for themselves. In his 16 games, Kemba is attempting nearly as many three-pointers as attempts inside the arc (11.22PA versus 10.4 3PA) and he’s upped his overall shot attempts (17 attempts in 2017-18, 21.6 this season) while actually improving his accuracy from the field and from deep. It’s unlikely that Walker could maintain this efficiency and scoring burden for a whole season, but he has looked unstoppable through the first month.
The three-point shot is a big part of Kemba’s scoring attack this season and explains his offensive explosion. He’s currently leading the league in three-pointers made and attempted with 65 and 167 respectively. This isn’t necessarily a major shift in Walker’s offensive game; it appears more the result of Kemba’s increase in shot attempts, and a league-wide emphasis on three-point offense.
It is also worth giving new head coach James Borrego his due for the change; last season, the Charlotte Hornets were 21st in the NBA with an average of 27.2 per game (despite ranking eighth in 3P% at 36.9%). So far this year, the Hornets have improved to 10th in attempts at 34.9, though their percentage has dipped to 35.4% (16th in the league). Walker is having an outstanding individual season, but he also appears to have benefitted from a new coach’s changing offensive philosophy.
James Borrego on Kemba Walker’s 103 Pts in 2 games: “He’s an incredible player. It’s his will that’s pushing us forward right now.”— Nick Carboni (@NickCarboniWCNC) November 20, 2018
His success from behind the arc should not overshadow that fact that Kemba is still one of the best scorers off the dribble in the NBA. He is fifth in the league in drives per game, just behind marquee names like DeRozan, Wall, Harden and Jrue Holiday. Off drives to the paint, Walker is averaging 10.2 points off drives and a 13% assist rate, both second best in the league. Kemba is a complete offensive player because defenders are forced to play off him to respect his driving ability, thereby giving him more space to shoot the three-pointer. He reads the defense, and reacts accordingly, which makes covering him a nightmare for opposing defenders.
Not to sound cynical about Walker’s early stats, but his unrestricted free agency might also explain his MVP-caliber start. If Walker were to be named to an All-NBA team, he would be eligible to receive a super-max extension. So far, he has been playing on a 4-year/$48 million rookie deal, which has been very favorable for the Charlotte front office. If he ends up eligible for the super-max, just the fifth player to do so, his contract would jump up to $221 million over five years. For a loyal player that has repeatedly declared his love for Charlotte, the front office is in a precarious position of whether or not to all-out commit to Kemba moving forward.
Everybody’s discussing KD leaving the Warriors and the entire Wizards roster is up for grabs, but what about Kemba Walker? Can we get that man out of Charlotte? Has he not suffered long enough?— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) November 20, 2018
Thus far through 2018-19 season, Kemba Walker has emerged as one of the most explosive individual players in the league. While the Hornets’ front office should certainly be thrilled that their 2011 first round pick has blossomed into a superstar, Walker’s excellent play has seemingly forced an ultimatum. Kemba may be willing to take a hometown discount, but he will definitely get paid. For a franchise at a crossroads and treading water (just 8-8, eighth in the East), the Hornets will have to decide if they want to swing for the fences and bring back Kemba. If so, they’ll need to assemble a contending core around him, and if not, they need to blow up the roster and start from the ground up.
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