CHARLOTTE – If you turn on a Carolina Panthers game, you should pay attention to their offense. Cam Newton is the recognizable alpha, an insanely large human with unfair skills for a guy his size. Slightly below him on the pecking order is running back Christian McCaffrey, one of the league’s most versatile players.
McCaffery is a running back by name, but you almost can’t tell by the way Carolina uses him. He’ll receive traditional handoffs or pitches from the backfield, but Carolina will split him out wide just as often. He isn’t just a threat in the screen game; he’s a skilled enough route runner to abuse linebackers or corners in space. With a player as elusive as McCaffrey, the goal is to feed him early, often, and in a multitude of ways. He’s on track for a historic season, and certainly ranks among the six or so best players at his position.
Funnily enough, McCaffrey may not be the best running back in his own city. That title belongs to Kemba Walker.
Usually, point guards are compared to quarterbacks whenever cross-sport analogies pop up. To a degree, that comparison holds weight when it comes to Walker. Not only is he the unquestioned leader of the Charlotte Hornets, he directs the action, leading the team in assists (6.3) and points generated by assists (14.8) per game. But Walker is a lot more McCaffrey than Newton: in stature (both are six-foot or shorter), role, and style.
Walker is enjoying the best season of his career, scoring more points (24.9) than ever with a 55.5 true shooting percentage. New head coach James Borrego has emphasized pushing the pace this season, something that has amplified the talents of his athletic roster.
“It fits the skill level and the strengths of all of our guys, but Kemba especially,” Hornets center Cody Zeller told Dime.
With the Hornets getting down the floor and into their sets quicker, defenses haven’t had the chance to load up against Walker like they have in years past. They’re constantly playing catch-up, which makes Walker even more dangerous.
Much like McCaffrey, Walker’s M.O. is to get his man on an island and get him leaning the wrong way. A hard dribble to the left is a precursor to a drive to his right. His hesitation dribble freezes you before he burns you. Once you start to hang back in preparation for the drive, he stops on a dime for pull-ups all over the place.
There’s no real answer for Walker on his own. He’s generating 1.17 points per isolation possession, putting him in the 92nd percentile. Add a screener into the fold, and you might as well head back the other way.