I didn’t see it with Kemba Walker.
The UConn star absolutely exploded in leading the Huskies to the 2011 National Championship and, with that performance as the engine, Walker’s NBA Draft stock skyrocketed. It was easy to be drawn to the magnetism Walker displayed as a college player, as he made every play necessary to lead his team to a title in a way that has only been replicated a handful of times in recent history.
That recipe led Walker to the Charlotte Hornets as the No. 9 pick. That felt like a reach. NCAA Tournament standouts that jump in the draft often don’t work out, as teams fall victim to small sample size theater at the expense of actual professional projection. After a rookie NBA season in which he posted a 46.4 percent true shooting (amid other scary statistics), any and all skepticism looked to be quite warranted.
From there, though, Walker emerged as a legitimate starting option for the Hornets as his shooting stabilized and he clearly improved from an efficiency perspective while developing his defensive skills from ugly to adequate. That inspired a three-year run of solid play that already ensured that many pre-draft evaluations (including yours truly) would be proven wrong and few doubted Walker as an entrenched figure in Charlotte following the 2014-2015 season.
Then, he exploded.
Walker broke out to the tune of 20.9 points per game on 55.4 percent true shooting (with a 20.8 PER) in 2015-2016. Even if that could have been something of a one-year blip, any fear of that was assuaged shortly thereafter. In fact, Walker’s 2016-2017 performance was a career-best and he netted his first All-Star berth (one that was wholeheartedly deserved) as a result.
The season was a wash from a team perspective, as the Hornets finished 36-46 while battling crippling injury issues. But Walker’s 79-game performance (finally) brought his considerable talents to light in the NBA realm and every bit of it was earned.
Fast-forward to the 2017-2018 season. The team added Dwight Howard, Nicolas Batum is healthy, and a roster that seemingly fixed at least some of the issues plaguing the squad previously was put together. The result? Many projected the Hornets to make the playoffs in the less-than-stellar East and, with Walker on board, anything seemed possible.
Of course, that doesn’t appear to be coming to fruition this time around, as the Hornets are yet again plagued by injury and the Howard experiment, while individually gratifying, has not translated to success with the future Hall of Fame big man on the floor. As for Walker, he continues to operate in relative obscurity and, even if that makes sense given Charlotte’s overall struggles, it also feels unfair.
His play is fantastically effective (and we’ll get there) but, importantly, Walker is capable of creating some incredible highlights with his ball-handling and explosiveness.
In his 30 games of action, Walker is averaging 21.6 points and 5.7 assists per game with still-impressive efficiency and obvious impact on the state of the product when he takes the floor. In fact, the Hornets operate as a strong, playoff-level team in his presence, outscoring opponents by 5.3 points per 100 possessions with Walker making his impact on the game.
When Walker heads to the bench, though, the wheels careen off the wagon in stark fashion. Charlotte then exists as, frankly, a dreadful basketball team in being outscored by 15.6 (!) points per 100 possessions. While some of that could function as a blip given the relatively small sample, it isn’t a coincidence.
Walker isn’t the first, nor the last, legitimate NBA star to languish in anonymity, which comes with the territory when dealing with a sub-.500 team in a market that does not generate national interest on its own. Still, it has to be emphasized, that Walker isn’t the problem in Charlotte, nor is there any real optimism for a future without him should he choose to leave in free agency at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 season.
I was wrong on Kemba Walker, and I’m not alone. He’s a fantastic player that deserves a better situation and, hopefully, that set-up will arrive before his prime evaporates without full recognition of just how impressive his recent run has been.