I can’t imagine why NBA commissioner Adam Silver would be watching a Wednesday night game between the Charlotte Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks. Heck, I’m not sure why anyone not in Charlotte or Atlanta would watch that one.
But maybe Silver got a healthy dose of the highlights before heading to bed. If so, he got quite an argument for why Hornets point guard Kemba Walker should replace the injured Kevin Love at the All-Star Game Feb. 18 in Los Angeles.
Walker made a career-high nine 3-pointers on his way to 38 points. It took him just 13 attempts to reach those nine made 3s. The Greats in the NBA improve incrementally each summer. Surely, seventh-season pro Walker has done that.
When Walker arrived in the NBA in the summer of 2011, he was coming off a national championship with the Connecticut Huskies. Hornets owner Michael Jordan saw some of himself in Walker’s persona, and suggested the front office give a long look at drafting the 6-1 point guard.
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Walker showed up with the ballhandling skill and fearlessness to continuously get the ball to the rim. However, that first season he made just 31 percent of his attempts from 3-point range. That made it easy for defenders to go under a Hornets big man’s screen, because the countermove to that tactic – launching a wide-open 3, rather than drive – was anything but Walker’s strength.
In the summer of 2015, Walker attacked that deficiency the way he traditionally attacked off the dribble. He’s worked daily with Hornets shooting specialist Bruce Kreutzer to smooth out his shooting form. Coach Steve Clifford said this wasn’t a radical makeover of his mechanics, just a tweak or maybe two that made a huge difference.
Walker never shot better than 33 percent from 3-point range in his first four NBA seasons. He has never shot worse than 36 percent in the ensuing seasons. Three percent might not sound like much, but it’s the difference between OK and dangerous as a 3-point shooter. It changed what defenses must do to contain him.
Now, defenders have no choice but to fight over screens when Walker has the ball. That makes everything else about his offensive game easier. After Walker broke his previous career best of seven 3s, with plenty of time left in the fourth quarter, a Hawks defender overplayed Walker’s jump shot. So he put the ball on the floor and drove for a layup, as if there was no one else on the floor.
Walker was the Hornets’ most efficient offensive player on a night when this team defined offensive efficiency: 51 percent from the field, 53 percent from 3-point range and 78 percent from the foul line.
Yes, it was the God-awful Hawks at 15-36, but those guys still are among the best basketball players in the world. Nic Batum assembled a triple-double of 10 points, 10 assists and 11 rebounds. Dwight Howard finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Even playing some uneven defense (the Hawks shot 51 percent from the field) the Hornets made this one look easy.
At shootaround Wednesday morning, I asked Walker if he’d make himself available, should the NBA call offering him Love’s spot in the All-Star Game. Walker said he’d absolutely accept such an invitation. That wouldn’t be a given for all NBA veterans: Many, if they weren’t selected initially, might elect just to get a week off to go sit on a beach in the Caribbean.
Walker isn’t wired that way. He’d naturally want to mingle with the best of the best in his sport, given the opportunity.
He’s a different type, and the Hornets are so fortunate to have him. Two opposing coaches, the New Orleans Pelicans’ Alvin Gentry and the Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer, have both mentioned recently that Walker is among the most competitive players in all the NBA.
Gentry went so far as to compare Walker to Kobe Bryant for that competitive zeal. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said he saw something different about Walker Clifford’s first summer in Charlotte, when Walker volunteered to practice with the summer league team, just to experience how playing for Clifford might be.
This is a guy the Hornets shouldn’t shop before the trade deadline.
This is a guy Silver definitely should select for a trip to Los Angeles.