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Beyond the Arc With Kemba Walker

When he improved his 3-point shooting, the whole court opened up

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Would you recognize Kemba Walker without a teal Charlotte Hornets uniform? Unlike most basketball stars, he’s the size of a mortal, standing a shade over 5-foot-11 in stocking feet. He doesn’t have spiderwebs of tattoos or an intricately structured, blond-tipped coiffure. His most noticeable features are a half-moon scrub of facial hair that comes to a tuft on his chin and an endearing smile.

Walker is 13th in the NBA in scoring, pouring in a career-best 24.7 points per game. He has reached 30 points three times this season, including a 40-point deluge against the Toronto Raptors in mid-November. He leads the 8–5 Hornets in scoring, assists, and steals. Metric-knobs love him, too: Walker is currently ninth in the league in VORP and RPM, and 11th in total win shares. And yet, coming into the season, Sports Illustrated’s list of the top 100 players pegged him at 36th, behind nine other point guards.

We hear endlessly (and for good reason) about the superhuman abilities of Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and, now, James Harden. So why is Kemba, comparatively, an invisible man?

"We just haven’t been winning as much as those guys," Walker told The Ringer. "Plus, those guys are always on TV." He deftly shifted a query about personal glory into a discussion of Charlotte’s successful start. "You don’t see much of the Hornets," he said. "We’re a good team. I think we’re really fun to watch. The more people see us play, the more they’ll like us."

Even though he’s unassuming, Walker is an unlikely candidate for the NBA’s most underappreciated star. After all, he’s from New York City, the universe’s top breeding ground for overhyped point guards who end up playing for yuan. He spent three years at UConn, and, as a junior, led the Huskies to the 2011 NCAA championship — after which he was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. He was selected ninth in that year’s NBA draft.

Walker’s game certainly doesn’t lend itself to anonymity. He’s a solid distributor and diligent caretaker of the rock, but has always been more of a scorer than a traditional point guard. He’s a bouncy droplet of quicksilver who effortlessly navigates the hardwood’s negative space and racks up buckets in bunches. His signature move, a jabbing step-back jumper, leaves defenders reeling in the lane as if kicked in the chest by a horse. This is not a guy you would expect to flitter around beneath the radar.

It might just be timing. "It’s one of the best eras for point guards ever," said Nicolas Batum, a French forward on the Hornets. "And now Kemba is coming. He, for sure, is a top-10 point guard in the league. Hands down. He’s a great scorer, but he has more balance now. He knows when he has to take over the game, and he knows when he’s gotta run the team."

Walker is 26, entering his prime and still improving. The key to his rise has been the development of his 3-ball. Over his first four years with Charlotte, he was below average from deep, which allowed sagging defenders to slip beneath picks and suffocate him at the rim. As recently as the 2014–15 season, he drained only 30.4 percent from behind the arc. But under the tutelage of a new shooting coach, who tweaked his footwork and adjusted how he held the ball, Walker knocked down 37.1 percent of 3-point attempts last year. Through 13 games this season, he’s trending upward again, draining 3s at a rate of 41.3 percent.

"I never knew what having a consistent deep ball would have done for me," Walker said. "It helps me get to the basket a little more. It helps me find my teammates a little bit more. It slows the game up a little bit more. I can use my speed coming off pick-and-rolls. It just opens up a whole different aspect of the game."

Not only is he taking more 3s than ever before, his field goal percentage at the rim has soared. Two seasons ago, he shot 49.2 percent from 0–3 feet, a number that jumped to 57.5 percent last year and is currently at 63.5 percent. His 59.6 percent true shooting percentage is a career high, and puts him among the league’s elite volume scorers.

"He does a lot of things naturally," said Hornets assistant coach Steve Hetzel, who was previously a player development coach with the Detroit Pistons. "The way he shifts his body. He’s got unbelievable footwork. He has rhythm. He has a way that he moves that benefits him, much like a running back in football. He’s able to get wherever he wants on the court."

Hetzel, who spends much of his time with Walker focusing on crisply running pick-and-rolls, has seen improvement in his player’s floor generalship. According to last season’s SportVU player tracking numbers, when Walker was the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations, he was in the 81st percentile in generating points per possession; this season, he’s in the 88th percentile — putting him first among the 29 guys who do it the most regularly.

"He’s one of the players, that what you apply and what you give him, he takes and makes it his own," said Hetzel. "Driving into a big that’s already at the level of the screen — like, he doesn’t do that anymore. He baits them and lets them go away, or he splits them right away or, if they’re back, he engages them to make certain passes that he’s looking for. He just has a much better understanding of what different defenses are trying to accomplish."

To truly appreciate what Walker has achieved, you have to start in the Sack Wern Houses, a clump of seven six-story brick rectangles in the Soundview section of the Bronx. His mother was a nursing attendant and his father was a construction worker. "My mom wouldn’t let me out," he said with a laugh, but her overprotective ways were indicative of the environment. Walker played more hoops than he watched, and Allen Iverson and Tim Hardaway were his idols. "They were smaller, just like me," he said. "Fearless. They had the moves, the crossovers, and they can score the ball really well." In 2013, Walker and Under Armour refurbished the same court he played on as a kid.

While at Rice High School, a Harlem basketball powerhouse whose alumni include former NBA players Felipe Lopez and Kenny Satterfield, Walker emerged as a five-star recruit and the no. 14 senior in the nation. Jim Calhoun, the former UConn coach who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005, said he first recruited Brandon Jennings, now of the Knicks, but shifted his sights to Walker. He found a tireless worker who was thrilled to learn that the UConn gym was open 24 hours a day and shared Calhoun’s reverence for quiet moments of self-improvement. "To me, practice was like, for a religious person, going to Mass on Sundays," said Calhoun. "It’s a place a lot of us find solace. I think Kemba found that. He wasn’t a troubled kid at all, but one of the reasons he avoided the streets was that the gym was a refuge."

Kemba Walker and Jim Calhoun (Getty Images)
Kemba Walker and Jim Calhoun (Getty Images)

For a certain kind of basketball fan, UConn’s 2011 championship was not the most memorable story of Walker’s junior season. It was the preceding Big East tournament, in which he torched his conference for a record-breaking 130 points while leading the Huskies to five victories in five days in front of a frothing Madison Square Garden crowd. "It was an unbelievable run," Walker said. "To this day, I go back and I watch games and I watch highlights of it, and I still can’t believe it. Like, it was crazy. But I had so much fun. That was one of the best moments of my life." UConn finished the season with 11 straight wins.

There’s no guarantee that Walker will have a professional moment that equals or surpasses his collegiate success. But he’s the most dangerous player on a good team, and a third trip to the playoffs seems to be on the horizon. He will have his opportunities.

"I watch Kemba in the NBA, night after night, and he still plays for the joy of the game," said Calhoun. "It’s an amazing thing to see, and I think it’s one of the reasons he’s one of the top … scorers in the league right now. He’s one of those guys who truly, truly loves playing basketball. He’s one of the best people I’ve been involved with. He’s a terrific player, but we’ve had some great players. He’s really a special, special guy. "