How Kemba Walker Fixed His Shot and Became an Elite NBA Point Guard

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistDecember 20, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 14: Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets dribbles the ball against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on December 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The NBA is filled with countless examples: Rajon Rondo, Ricky Rubio and Derrick Rose are inarguable liabilities from deep. Russell Westbrook—a career 30.4 percent three-point shooter—may experience a harsh fall from grace once his athleticism declines.

The Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic have to be questioning whether Emmanuel Mudiay, Marcus Smart and Elfrid Payton can respectively steer dominant attacks while defenders routinely dip beneath screens to muck up the offense.

Kemba Walker is officially no longer in that company.

His career changed when the Charlotte Hornets hired assistant Bruce Kreutzer. A coach for nearly 40 years, he arrived before the 2015-16 season to help players boost their shooting percentages. And Walker was the organization's priority target.

The pair initially met right after a workout, where Kreutzer filmed the franchise point guard's jump shots. He concluded that in order for Walker to have a more direct line to the basket, he should move his shot pocket over just a bit. Walker refers to this change as "the biggest [adjustment] of my career," and positive results quickly followed: He upped his three-point percentage from 30.4 to 37.1 and averaged over 20 points for the first time.

Charlotte's offense also cracked the top 10 last campaign after ranking 28th in 2014-15.

Walker knocked down just 31.8 percent of his threes through his first four seasons—a dreadful stat compounded by his number of attempts (1,165)—and he was the worst high-volume outside shooter in the league by a wide margin during that stretch. In most cases, a wart that noticeable never disappears.

But it has.

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 7:  Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets shoots the ball during a game against the Indiana Pacers on November 7, 2016 at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees t
Kent Smith/Getty Images

"Being able to shoot the perimeter shot, whether it be a two or a three, certainly opens up the floor," Kreutzer said. "And knowing that, people have to close out on him now, get up into him. And with his ability and his speed and quickness, he goes by people and creates a lot of havoc for other teams."

The floodgates have opened this season. Walker is shooting 41.4 percent beyond the arc on a robust 6.4 attempts per game. (Walker is one of three players in the league to pass those marks, and Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry is the only player in the Eastern Conference who's made more threes.) 

Walker has renovated his reputation and altered the arc of his career in a way nobody saw coming, like Matthew McConaughey's unthinkable journey from Fool's Gold to True Detective.

"Honestly, I've never been a numbers guy until I got to this league. That's all anybody talks about, numbers and percentages and stuff like that," Walker told Bleacher Report.

"I've never been that way, especially in my first couple years in the league. But as far as my numbers not getting better at one point, I always felt like I was getting better. I’m a really patient guy, so I know that it takes time to get better, and I've been like that throughout my whole basketball career."

MEMPHIS, TN - NOVEMBER 28:  Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets handles the ball against the Memphis Grizzlies during the game on November 28, 2016 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

But extended range itself doesn't explain why Walker's sixth season is almost guaranteed to feature his first All-Star appearance. After every game and shootaround, he watches 15-20 film clips with Hornets assistant coach Steve Hetzel. The two study several aspects of Walker's game, particularly pick-and-roll action, where the 26-year-old makes navigating the complicated layers of NBA defenses look easier than ordering an Uber.

"It makes everyone's job easier because now he can shoot it really well," Hornets center Cody Zeller told Bleacher Report. "It opens up rolls for me, it opens up weak-side threes on the other side, and he's unselfish, so he can make every play."

Walker and Hetzel like to look at how opponents defend the pick-and-roll—whether they keep their big man up high with the screen or drop him back—and how he can best attack different coverages.

"He's one of the few players where—for some people it takes a lot of time, a lot of repetition of showing film over and over and then taking that to the practice court to drill it," Hetzel told Bleacher Report. "But he can take film, see it and apply it right to the game. Instantly."

Walker's improved three-point shot also allows him to attack ball screens farther from the basket, a subtle benefit that gives him more room and time to separate from his defender and attack his screener's man.

"This year it's a huge difference, just because I want his defender to go over the screen," Zeller said. "In other years, I had to make sure the defender didn't get under it, you know, set it a couple steps lower. But this year, it makes my screening that much easier."

When you attach accurate shooting to one of the most aesthetically beautiful handles in the world, opponents are left to wonder if their task is harder than threading a needle on eight cups of coffee. Or trying to catch a pigeon with a plastic bag.

"Good pick-and-roll defense is when the defender gets into the ball-handler to try and negate separation on the screen," Hetzel said.

"So anytime you can get him further away from you, that 1) gives you separation, and 2) allows your man to screen him. So he has a variety of different moves that he does, just to move the defender's feet. And once he moves their feet, that creates the separation he needs to then attack the big man in the pick-and-roll."

You can see what that looks like in the clip below. Notice how Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson steps back when Walker starts to dance? That small bit of separation gives Walker the space he needs to shed Jackson and attack poor Jon Leuer at the next level:

Credit: NBA.com

While his improved outside shot and his ability to navigate pick-and-rolls receive most of the attention, Walker is also getting into the paint more than ever this year, and his shooting percentage within three feet of the rim has never been higher.

Why? As opposed to earlier in Walker's career, when Al Jefferson lived on the block, just about every member of Charlotte's frontcourt can stretch opposing big men to the perimeter. In pick-and-pop situations, it provides a moment of hesitation that lets Walker attack less imposing help defenders.

Credit: NBA.com

He's also a shifty player who understands angles and how to contort his body in midair (another part of his game he improves with relentless film study).

"That guy finds space when there's no space," Hornets forward Marvin Williams told Bleacher Report. "Even if the paint is packed, he'll sneak his way in there some kind of way. He's the quickest dude I’ve ever seen on a basketball court, no question."

But the best explanation is a new rule the Hornets want Walker to abide by whenever he drives to the basket: He's no longer allowed to shoot unless he's past the big or in solid position to draw contact. Walker is 6'1", and the Hornets coaching staff has concluded some battles aren't worth picking.

"I mean, it just makes sense not to try and go straight up with the big," Walker said.

Instead, whenever he catches a larger defender in space, Walker measures the distance between him and the rim. He then either rises for an open pull-up jumper (a look opponents don't want to surrender) or burrows toward the restricted area. It's a lose-lose proposition for whoever's unlucky enough to be in this position.

Credit: NBA.com

"I'm happy I'm on the other end of that right now," Hornets center Roy Hibbert told Bleacher Report.

But more attention comes with a brighter spotlight. To try to squeeze the ball out of Walker's hands, opponents have ramped up their aggression by blitzing pick-and-rolls late in games.

"They're going after him more," Hornets head coach Steve Clifford said. "They’re making other guys shoot the ball late in the game."

Even though they don't have offensive sets to combat traps, the Hornets are confident in their ability to space the floor and make teams pay. During those situations, the roll man—usually Zeller, who's a smart passer—turns into Diet Draymond Green and has to either attack the rim or kick it out to open shooters. In clutch time, Charlotte ranks fourth in three-point attempts (2.8) and three-point percentage (36).

"If they want to take away Kemba, it opens up our shooting," Hetzel said. "If they want to take away our shooting, it opens up Kemba."

Walker's usage percentage is at an all-time high (28.9), and he's responded with the most efficient season of his career. He leads the Hornets in points per game (22.4), assist rate (30.4) and player efficiency rating (22.6). He is also fifth among point guards in real plus-minus, behind Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and Stephen Curry. When Walker sits on the bench, Charlotte's offense is near its worst (97.4 points per 100 possessions, 30th leaguewide).

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 11:  Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets shoots the ball against the Boston Celtics on April 11, 2016 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or usi
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

"That kid's a warrior," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. "That kid's a competitor. He always has been, and you know that he loves the game. I watched him play as a high schooler, in an AAU game, and just play with great love for the game and spirit. And that's translated at every level."

If the season ended today, Charlotte would have home-court advantage in the playoffs as the No. 4 seed, and it's hard to argue against Walker's All-Star candidacy. Several Hornets players and coaches interviewed for this piece shared a similar sentiment regarding the leader of the team: Walker's ceiling doesn't exist.

When you consider his growth this year—without any drop-off on defense or in his annually stellar turnover rate—you can't say they're being dishonest.

"I want to be an every-night player, the best leader I can be for my teammates each and every night," Walker said. "I don’t really mean as far as points and stuff like that. I'm talking about my mentality, as far as my leadership, as far as getting my guys ready to play each and every night. That's the kind of guy I want to be."

       

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics are from NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com and are current heading into Tuesday's games unless otherwise noted.

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