For years the NBA book on Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker read: “If he could just make 3-pointers."
This season he’s making 3-pointers and in the view of his coach, that is game-changing.
“It could change his whole career. He’s going to keep shooting like this,” coach Steve Clifford said. “His confidence level is so high.”
In his first four NBA seasons, all in Charlotte, Walker shot 31.8 percent from 3-point range. That’s deficient. A 34 percent average is typically considered acceptable from NBA 3-point range. Thirty-six percent is strong, and anything consistently in the 40 percent vicinity is elite.
In his first 17 games – nearly a quarter of the 2015-16 season – Walker is shooting 39.7 percent from 3 (27-of-68). That is not a particularly large sample, but Clifford has seen enough to believe this is no blip.
Walker spent hundreds of hours this summer working with Hornets shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer. Clifford hired Kreutzer last spring to replace Mark Price’s skill set after Price left to become head coach of the Charlotte 49ers.
“I lived in the gym this summer, just trying to be more consistent,” Walker said. “I know to get to another level I had to make 3s; be more consistent with it.”
The Hornets have a home game Wednesday against the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have set the NBA record for consecutive season-opening victories at 19-0.
The Warriors are built around the most prolific 3-point shooter in the league: Former Davidson star Stephen Curry is making 44.5 percent of his 3s this season, and his league-leading 3-point total (94) exceeds what the Minnesota Timberwolves (92) and Brooklyn Nets (81) have made.
Curry’s shooting range changes how defenses must guard him in the pick-and-roll, opening up driving lanes. Walker is beginning to have similar advantages as opponents start accounting for his improved 3-point shooting.
In the sophisticated game of hide-and-seek that is the pick-and-roll play, defenders previously could go under the pick against Walker, not particularly concerned that would create space for Walker to make 3s. Now defenders have little choice but to fight over the pick, which more exposes them to being beaten off the dribble.
“It’s night and day,” Clifford said of the difference. “It does one simple thing: They can’t go under, so they are constantly in rotation and he’s constantly in the paint.
“In previous years he’d still get into the paint, but they’d go under. Then they could get back in front and he’d have to make a quicker decision. Now we’re constantly (playing) 4-on-3 because they’re chasing him over the pick-and-rolls.”
Walker has always had superior quickness and change of direction off the dribble. He worked with Price, a former All-Star point guard, the past two season on decision-making and shot selection. But he could be only so good until opponents respected his 3-point shot.
“It helps me out a lot. Definitely opening things up for me,” Walker said. “I see the floor better now (with) guys going over the screens. I’m able to operate at a whole different level.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell