To really appreciate how far Kemba Walker has come, dust off that copy of NBA 2K12, slide it into your wheezing Xbox 360, and find young Kemba on the roster of the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats, where he is stuck behind D.J. friggin’ Augustin on the depth chart, slinging passes to the likes of Byron Mullens and Tyrus Thomas, in a godawful pinstriped navy blue uniform. Blech.
Kemba shot 36.6 percent from the floor that year. His Net Rating in just over 27 minutes per game was minus-15.1. He was dreadful. It was a Mudiayan rookie season for Walker, on a historically atrocious basketball team. Only, unlike Emmanuel Mudiay, Walker was (and is) a very small NBA player, and very small players who aren’t uncommonly efficient become Aaron Brooks, if they are lucky.
His rookie season didn’t doom him to obscurity—or, at least, to any worse obscurity than Charlotte, which back then was about as obscure an NBA outpost as there has ever been—but it also provided almost zero encouragement that he could be an NBA rotation player, let alone a particularly good one. And his sophomore season wasn’t much better: His shooting ticked up marginally (42.3 percent from the floor, 32.2 percent from the arc) but still left a lot to be desired, and the team was still awful with him on the floor (minus-9.7 Net Rating). When you use lots of possessions on your own offense, and your own offense involves chucking up long, off-balance two-pointers, your team is going to struggle.
At what point does this become a pattern? How about the following season, when Kemba shot a putrid 39.3 percent while using up more than a quarter of Charlotte’s possessions while he was on the floor, for a team whose surprising top-five defense was consistently undermined by an offense that led the NBA in long midrange jumpers, a Kemba specialty. It was in October of that season, with Walker still bricking long twos for a team that couldn’t find its own ass on the offensive end, that the organization picked up the fourth-year option on his rookie contract. The math here was pretty simple: why offer an early extension to a guy who, based on his NBA history to date, was unlikely to garner a whole lot of interest as a restricted free agent, and who may not be a long-term solution at the NBA’s most important position?
The Bobcats rode that top-five defense to a playoff berth, where they were summarily dumped in four not-very-competitive games by LeBron James and the eventual conference champion Miami Heat. The teams were a complete mismatch, but Kemba had himself a series, scoring 19.5 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting. More than that, though, it was an opportunity for casual NBA fans who’d gone years and years without being exposed to the sad-sack Bobcats to appreciate what it means to be the smallest guy on the saddest-sack franchise in the NBA, taking it upon himself to do all the difficult and daring and mostly doomed work of manufacturing offense out of thin air, against a bonafide juggernaut. Kemba made shots, sure, but that’s result. Before the ball went in, and whether it went in or not, Kemba was electric:
That was more or less the shape of that series: Kemba would shake and dart and wiggle his way into space, knock down tough looks on the move, knife into the paint and find a teammate somewhere on the arc, and generally provide all the energy and spontaneity of Charlotte’s offense. In the final game of the series, Kemba played out of his mind, dropping 29 points with an insane degree of difficulty, and bouncing and barking and fighting his ass off past the point when the game was no longer there to be had:
It was encouraging enough that the Bobcats beat the deadline for restricted free agency the following autumn and signed Walker to what now looks very much like a bargain-basement contract: four years, $48 million. And Kemba, true to form, went out and rewarded their faith with a woefully inefficient season: 38.5 percent shooting from the floor, 30.4 percent from the arc, a dismal minus-4.6 Net Rating, and 20 games missed due to injury. The team started 6-19 and finished 33-49.
If it seems like I’m laying out a case that Kemba’s recent success is a mirage, and that he is actually a butt NBA player, I’m really not! The things that got him into the NBA are real basketball strengths: he’s quicker and faster than everyone; his vicious handle is a serious weapon; he’s got a knack for picking a fool’s pocket and jumping passing lanes; and he is absolutely fearless.
His shot selection needed some work, but also, his jumper was just a goddamn mess. Look at this shit:
Charlotte hired a guy named Bruce Kreutzer after the dismal 2014-15 season, to work with players on their shooting. According to this cool rundown from Rob Mahoney at Sports Illustrated, Kreutzer worked with Kemba on his feet, his take-off, and his shooting pocket, and helped him clean up his jumper and make it more easily replicable.
It’s hard to know exactly how much of Kemba’s improvement comes down to this development work—the Hornets now have a much more talented, cohesive roster around him, and their offense emphasizes creating higher efficiency looks, instead of just Kemba zig-zagging around at breakneck speed until a pocket of space opens up—but this much is certain: He is no longer the inefficient chucker he has been in seasons past. He shot a career-best 37 percent from the arc last season, on a career-high 490 attempts. And this season, with the 8-5 Hornets looking like a contender for the second seed in the East, he’s shooting a sizzling 43.9 percent on threes, and 47.3 percent overall. And he’s on pace to blow right by last season’s total attempts.
It’s possible that Walker’s growth as a shooter and offensive centerpiece comes down simply to circumstances and opportunity aligning in his favor—Charlotte hasn’t drafted a rotation guard during his years on the team, and hasn’t been an attractive destination for free agents, so he’s had plenty of time to work out the kinks. But that’s just it: At any point the organization could have decided Walker’s poor shooting was a good enough reason to pull the plug and make him someone else’s problem, as the Sixers did with Michael Carter-Williams after just one full season. A shitty truth about the NBA is once the shine comes off a young player, it’s incredibly unlikely to come back, as teams get starry-eyed about the next rookie, who hasn’t yet been dumped by a competitor.
In retrospect it seems so obvious: Kemba was a young player on a horrible, directionless team, surrounded by mismatched and overmatched stiffs—of course he struggled. And the kind of player who can come into that kind of situation and move the needle for a franchise is incredibly rare—remind yourself that even Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t yet been able to quite pull it off—let alone as an undersized shoot-first point guard. This is where teams stuck in the tank-to-win cycle would execute their version of the long game: package the player with whatever else is likely to return another draft pick, which will then be used to try to find another player from that incredibly rare group. If you subscribe to the notion that an NBA general manager’s job is simply to play the odds during a couple of annual offseason feeding frenzies, the Hornets should have dumped Kemba Walker no later than 2013.
But there’s another long game, and it’s the one the Hornets ran: Practice the patience and discipline required to maximize the development of players you have, and invest in coaches and players who complement them. The Hornets methodically surrounded Walker with guys with identifiable NBA skills—Al Jefferson could score on the block; Nic Batum has a versatile offensive game; Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can defend the opponent’s best perimeter player; etc.—and dedicated themselves to helping Kemba develop into a more complete offensive player. It’s less sexy than swinging for the fences in the draft every year or two, and far, far less safe a path for an NBA general manager’s job security, but it’s no less credible a plan. It just requires that the organization be good at finding players, and good at finding coaches, and good at player development. You can see why it was a less appealing option for, say, Sam Hinkie.
Maybe Kemba would have become the next Kyle Lowry, who emerged from the band of serviceable journeymen to become an All-Star, but because the Hornets held onto him and stuck to his development, they’re the ones getting to reap all the rewards. Kemba Walker is a beast. The Hornets are terrific, and fun, and their fans love them because they’ve all gotten to this point together. Isn’t that supposed to be the goal?