In today’s NBA, two things are increasing substantially: three-point shooting and guard play. This idea was a major factor in the 2017 NBA Draft, with five point guards taken in the top-ten. With this shift of playing style in recent years, the league has seen many guards take a big step to become star players, including Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, and Isaiah Thomas. This season, the newest breakout guard will be Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Hornets.
Walker, heading into his seventh NBA season, is coming off a terrific, albeit quiet, 2016-17 campaign. He averaged career highs in the following categories: points per game (23.2), field goal percentage (44.4 percent), three-point percentage (39.9 percent), and three-point attempts (7.6). Walker’s increased field goal percentage is vital to his success; for the first four seasons of his career, he shot under 40 percent on 14.6 shots per game. The increased efficiency, 44.4 percent on over 18 shots per game, lead to his first ever All-Star appearance.
The real question for Kemba Walker heading into this season is whether he can continue improving on an already great year. Will he set new career highs or was last year a statistical anomaly? If he plans on landing a selection to an All-NBA team, Walker has to make a huge leap in his game. As great as he was in 2016-17, he didn’t receive a single vote for any All-NBA roster. Other elite guards such as Irving and Chris Paul also missed out on an All-NBA selection, showing how competitive the guard position is in this league.
— theScore (@theScore) September 4, 2017
So how can Walker solidify himself as a top-six guard in the NBA this season? The two main areas of focus are pretty obvious ones: increased scoring and assists. If he can continue scoring at an increasingly efficient rate, the scoring rise should come naturally. However, driving his assist totals up may take a bit more work. Luckily, Charlotte has assembled a decent roster around their 27-year-old franchise centerpiece.
Offseason additions, including rookie guard Malik Monk and veteran center Dwight Howard, have turned the Hornets into a playoff team. While Howard clearly isn’t the elite scoring and rebounding big man he once was, he can still hold his own in the paint and score at a highly efficient rate. Last season, he shot a career-high 63.3 percent from the field; of his 650 attempts (including postseason), 492 of them came within three feet of the rim.
Monk will join Nicolas Batum as Walker’s sharpshooting teammates. Last year with Kentucky, 47 percent of Monk’s attempts came from behind the three-point line, knocking down 39.7 percent of those 262 shots. On top of that, 81.7 percent of his three-point makes were assisted by teammates. Batum had very similar numbers last year with Charlotte; of his 135 made threes, 117 were assisted for a terrific 86.7 percent rate. Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky both hit over 100 threes, and each had over 90 percent of their threes assisted.
With the addition of another terrific spot-up shooter and a viable big man, Walker should benefit from more pick-and-roll play. In fact, it was already an area of strength for the Hornets last year, and that was before their terrific offseason. Walker’s combination of great ball-handling, quickness, and improved shooting, he has the ability to beat most defenders in the pick-and-roll.
At 27 years old, Walker should be heading into the prime of his career. While he’s missed just four games over the past two seasons, he did undergo offseason surgery on his left knee. It was the second surgery on that knee, though this time around it was a minor arthroscopic procedure.
Assuming he recovers as expected, this has to be the season that Walker puts his stamp on the league. He’s set to become a free agent during the 2019 offseason, and right now he’s on his way to a big payday. Not only should this be a personally successful year for him, but he should also to lead his Hornets to relevancy. Charlotte has made the postseason just three times since re-entering the league in 2004, failing to make it past the first round each time. All that can change this year, with Kemba Walker leading his newly-improved supporting cast, and making a name for himself along the way.