It has been three years since Kemba Walker became a household name in March, when the point guard led Connecticut to the 2011 NCAA basketball championship with a game predicated on his dazzling first step.
When Walker got up to speed in college, there was really no one who could stop him. But it has taken him until now to realize that while speed is always an asset, you sometimes need to slow down.
“My poise is a lot different now,” Walker said Thursday after the Bobcats practice. “When I first came into the league, I was one speed, and that was full speed. One hundred miles per hour.”
With 10 games left in the regular season, Walker, 23, has the Charlotte Bobcats on the cusp of what will be only their second NBA playoff berth. Charlotte (35-37) stands in seventh place in the Eastern Conference entering Friday’s game at Orlando, and it would take a total collapse not to make it at this point.
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Walker has always thought of himself as a winner, and the run with which he ended his collegiate career proved it. Then he played on two horrible Bobcats teams in a row to begin his pro career. The Bobcats went 28-120 over those two seasons, which was the worst record in the NBA in that span.
“So the playoffs would mean a lot,” Walker said. “I played two really tough seasons to get to this point. For me, after those bad teams, I feel like we deserve it. We put in our time. We worked hard to get here. It’s exciting to finally get the opportunity to be playing for something.”
Walker and Bobcats center Al Jefferson are the two most important players on this team – Walker helped recruit Jefferson to Charlotte last summer – and the offense runs through them in almost every half-court set.
What Walker has really gotten good at in the past few months, coach Steve Clifford said, is “quick decision-making” on the pick and roll. Although Walker will always be a shoot-first point guard and this team will always need those points, he also can now become a more conventional, “pass-first” one when the situation dictates.
“The first option off the pick and roll is always to score,” Walker said with a laugh, but be acknowledged he used to play like that was the only option. Walker would get a screen, drive as close to the basket as he could and then throw up a shot no matter what the defense did.
He has become far better at drawing a double-team and passing out of it to an open man, slowing down to 55 mph occasionally to ensure he makes the right play.
“I’m attracting a lot of attention,” Walker said. “So I’m just learning that whenever I draw a second defender, somebody’s open, and it’s my job to find that open man. That’s what I’ve been doing. Nothing spectacular. Just the simple pass. Not the home-run play. Not the fancy play. The simple pass – and that’s been boosting my assists up a lot.”
Said Clifford: “He just makes so many more plays now. If he doesn’t have a shot off the pick and roll, he keeps going down the baseline, like (Steve) Nash used to do, and it just puts so much pressure on the defense.”
Walker’s assist ascent can be illustrated by a simple statistic. For roughly the second half of this season, he has had at least seven assists in 65 percent of his games. For the first half of the season, it was closer to 20 percent of the time.
Wednesday night, he had 20 points and 12 assists in one of the Bobcats’ more electrifying wins of the season – a 116-111 overtime victory against Brooklyn. The atmosphere was raucous. “The fans were awesome,” Walker said. “I love when it’s rocking like that.”
Did it feel like the playoffs? Walker hasn’t experienced them, so he honestly doesn’t know. But he can’t wait to find out.