Kemba Walker, NBA Most Improved Player.
I don’t know whether Walker has a chance in the balloting come April, but I know there is a reasonable argument to be made that Walker has improved dramatically and in a way that greatly impacts the Hornets’ playoff chances.
He had his 30th game of 20 or more points in Wednesday’s 20-point road victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. He reached 30 points on 10-of-21 shooting from the field. He reached the foul line 12 times. He dominated on a night when the Hornets couldn’t afford to squander an opportunity against the Eastern Conference’s worst team at 8-53.
The Hornets improved to 32-28. Barring a collapse, they appear likely to head to their third playoff appearance since the inception of the Bobcats in 2004.
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There are many reasons why they are in playoff contention: the acquisitions of Nic Batum and Jeremy Lin, the recent development of Cody Zeller at center, Al Jefferson’s willingness to morph into a sixth-man role.
But nothing compares to Walker’s importance. As Jefferson said recently, he’s their motor and the truck doesn’t move without the motor.
Most Improved Player is the most subjective of the NBA’s various awards because there’s no set-in-stone criteria for what is improvement. Some of the media members on the voting panel look for young players who had a breakthrough to be competitive. Others consider players who went from good to great.
Typically, the vote gets divided among as many as a dozen viable candidates. Walker belongs somewhere in that dozen.
What’s so different? Two things, coach Steve Clifford describes: Walker’s long-range shooting and pick-and-roll sophistication.
Back in June, Walker started working extensively with assistant coaches Steve Hetzel and Bruce Kreutzer on his individual game. The season is for fine-tuning, the summer for overhauls.
Kreutzer, who replaced now-Charlotte 49ers coach Mark Price as the Hornets’ shooting specialist, helped Walker clean up his 3-point shooting. The improvement has been dramatic: from just 30.4 percent last season to 36.8 percent now.
Obviously, a nearly 7 percent improvement from 3 is a weapon unto itself. But it also significantly changed how teams must defend Walker in the pick-and-roll. Teams used to go under picks without fear Walker would pull up and burn them from long range.
Now defenses have no choice but to fight over the pick, and that launches all sorts of opportunities off the dribble.
Working with Hetzel, Walker figured out how better to exploit his quickness and ball-handling. He drives with impunity on big men, finishing with either hand. He has a midrange pull-up when his path the rim is effectively blocked.
And, as those 12 free-throw attempts illustrate, he’s good at forcing defenders to have to foul out of desperation.
That’s quite a repertoire, and it’s all but rewritten the scouting reports on what to do about Walker.
As Walker said the other day, learning to be a dangerous 3-point threat “changed my life.”
It’s certainly changing his profile. It just might – and should – change a few votes on those Most Improved ballots.