The Charlotte Hornets are 6-1?!
It seems like an exaggeration, much like Kemba Walker’s “official” height (also 6-1, wink wink).
The Hornets are good, sure. But right now they are tied for the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference with Cleveland. Is it time to recalibrate our expectations? Are they really this good?
The answer to those two questions is a qualified “yes” – with the qualification being that Kemba Walker stays healthy and stays at the dazzling level of play he has ascended to right now.
And he just might. Walker was robbed of an NBA All-Star Game berth last season, but that’s not going to happen again. Too many people are noticing.
All right, so let’s think bigger. Riding a franchise-best start – and before the Hornets play the most recent Eastern Conference NBA playoff finalists Toronto at home on Friday and Cleveland on the road on Sunday – this is a fine chance to toss around some big dreams.
So Kemba, this team won 48 games in the last regular season. Will it win 50-plus this time around?
“I think we can,” Walker told me Thursday. “We’re really confident. We enjoy playing with each other.”
OK, so can this team win an NBA championship?
“I don’t know,” he said finally. “I can’t really think that far ahead. The goal for the regular season is to get to the playoffs, then get there and think about things like that. ... But I will say I’m super-confident in my team.”
A star not named Jordan
The Hornets go two-deep at every position. As usual, coach Steve Clifford is squeezing every bit of potential out of his squad.
Fans have long bemoaned the Hornets’ lack of a true star, of a player who can carry a team in the fourth quarter.
But what if that star is already here?
I think he is, and I don’t mean the guy who owns the team.
No, Walker is not a one-name superstar of the LeBron or Steph variety, but Kemba is a bright star nonetheless. He’s 26 years old. In his prime. And through seven games, he’s averaging career highs in points (23.9), field-goal percentage (46.6) and three-point percentage (43.5).
The Hornets could barely survive without him, but they sure do thrive with him.
Said Utah coach Quin Snyder of Walker: “He’s lightning quick. ... He’s one of the better ball handlers in the league as far as his command over the ball. He can get where he wants to go.”
Speaking of Michael Jordan, though, the Hornets owner has been mostly seen but not heard during what has been the best start in Charlotte basketball history.
“He kind of stays out of the way,” Walker said of Jordan, “and doesn’t say too much. What’s great about him is he knows when to say things and he knows when not to. He’s been in our shoes before.”
Not throwing away his shot
Walker on the dead run during a fast break is a breathtaking sight. If you have ever tried to catch a minnow in a stream, that is similar to the way defenders try to catch Walker – trying to rein him in with both hands and hoping for the best.
Kemba has always been quick, but now he can shoot, too. Defenders used to be able to cheat on Walker’s quickness by darting under every screen and daring him to shoot from outside. He shot between 30 and 33 percent from the 3-point line his first four NBA seasons. The book on Kemba: Make him shoot the deep jumper.
Last season he improved that three-point mark to 37.1, which was part of the reason he finished second in the NBA voting for “Most Improved Player.” Now he’s shooting the trey at 43.5 percent.
That number will drop, but not by that much. Walker has spent most of the past two summers working on his shot, and he is so much more confident in it than he used to be. He also gets the advantage of getting better shots now that he’s on a team that includes more scoring threats and passing whiz Nic Batum.
“If you watch him in the summer, he’s in here every day,” Clifford said of Walker. “He has a routine during the season. He’s trying to get better, and he’s made himself into a much better player.”
The All-Star dream
Batum is the Hornets’ highest-paid player, but he has no problem playing second fiddle to Walker. Batum said before training camp started he wanted to make Walker an all-star this season, and he is certainly doing his part.
As for Walker, he always talks about the team first. But being an all-star for the first time for the 2017 game (which was originally scheduled for Charlotte, although that’s another story) is an honor Kemba makes no secret he wants.
“That’s something every kid dreams of throughout their lives, being an all-star,” Walker said. “Of course I would love it. who wouldn’t? But that’s not my main focus. ... I just want to win. I always feel like when your team wins, the accolades come.”
The next 48 hours will be a litmus test for the Hornets. The road to anywhere good in the East goes through both Toronto and Cleveland. This will be the first chance for us to see how the Hornets stack up against the two teams that were the class of the Eastern Conference only a few months ago.
Even if Charlotte loses both, however, this has all the makings of a fun season.
“A super, super-fun season,” Walker corrected.
OK. Super, super-fun.
The way Kemba is playing right now, there’s no sense in arguing with him.
Best in the East
Charlotte’s Kemba Walker is tied for third-best in scoring among all players in the Eastern Conference through Wednesday’s games. Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, who is No. 1 and even hotter than Walker, comes to Charlotte Friday to face the Hornets.