Scott Fowler

As team’s uncertainty swirls, why Kemba Walker remains Hornets’ calming presence

Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker puts up a contested layup Wednesday night against Detroit. Walker had a team-high 24 points in the Hornets’ opening-night loss.
Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker puts up a contested layup Wednesday night against Detroit. Walker had a team-high 24 points in the Hornets’ opening-night loss. AP

The Charlotte Hornets swirl with uncertainty as they approach their home opener Friday night against the Atlanta Hawks.

But one thing remains certain: Kemba Walker is the team’s best player and the one player the Hornets cannot do without. To be good, Hornets coach Steve Clifford said, “We’re going to need another All-Star caliber year from Kemba.”

It is sometimes easy to take Walker for granted, for he has been doing what he does now for seven seasons in Charlotte.

Walker was drafted by the Hornets in 2011, the same year quarterback Cam Newton was drafted by the Carolina Panthers, and in many ways the dynamic point guard who is listed at 6-foot-1 (cough, cough) fulfills the same role as Newton does. Kemba is the Hornets’ quarterback, and he picked up where he left off Wednesday night in the season opener with a team-high 24 points.

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Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (right) is listed at 6-foot-1, which means he has to routinely navigate through giants like Detroit center Andre Drummond. Carlos Osorio AP

The Hornets lost that game, though, 102-90 to Detroit. Shaky defense and sloppy turnovers played a part, as did Frank Kaminsky and Malik Monk shooting a combined 2-for-18. The Hornets obviously don’t know who they are quite yet. Walker doesn’t know exactly what he’s working with, either.

When I asked him this week what kind of team the 2017-18 Hornets would be, he was optimistic as usual. Walker said he would love for the Hornets to be a top-4 team in the Eastern Conference, which would allow them to get homecourt advantage in a first-round playoff series. But then Walker kept going, saying he truly didn’t know a lot about this Hornets team.

“I’m just not sure yet,” Walker said. “Over the last couple of years I’ve learned that every team is different every single year. Things can come together really fast -- or it can take awhile. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for us to find our identity, but we want to be the team we know we can be. And what I mean by that is gritty and really defensive-minded.”

I wouldn’t read too much into the Hornets’ opening-game loss to the Pistons, or even into what Charlotte’s record is after two weeks. Last season’s team began 6-1, remember, and then faded to 36-46 and out of the playoffs.

Walker averaged 23.2 points per game last season and shot 40 percent from 3-point range – the best year of his career in both categories. You no longer could go under every screen when trying to defend him and dare him to shoot from outside.

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Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker enters his seventh season in the NBA, a year after making his first All-Star Game appearance. Carlos Osorio AP

This season will be different in several ways, however. First of all, Walker and new starting center Dwight Howard have to learn each other’s tendencies.

“I’ve never played with an athletic big (man) like that,” Walker said. “I’m excited to have him. And we know as we go, that’s the way the team’s going to go. We know how much responsibility we both have.”

More problematically, Walker is without shooting guard Nic Batum for at least the first six weeks of the season because of a torn ligament in Batum’s left elbow. Batum has been a big part of Walker’s success, allowing Walker to play some off the ball and get easier shots because of Batum’s passing skills.

“That’s a tough break, man,” Walker said of Batum’s injury. “He’s a guy who just knows the flow of the game. He knows how to get everyone involved and he especially knows how to get me going. We have guys who are capable replacements, but they are going to really have to step up.”

There’s all that uncertainty, but then there’s Walker.

“Obviously Kemba had an incredible year last season that was really fun to watch,” teammate Marvin Williams said. “He just has to be him. He’s the guy who can definitely take us to the next level.”

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