New Level

It took a few years for him to get his shooting under control, but fifth-year guard Kemba Walker has established himself as the undisputed leader of the sneaky-good Charlotte Hornets.
by May 23, 2016

This is what the home of an NBA player should look like. In the living room, an oversized flatscreen shows the Clippers facing the Heat. A full-time chef is preparing lunch. Dozens of jerseys decorate the walls in heavy, dark frames, stitched names facing out. Find CURRY and DRUMMOND above the doorway that leads out back to a circular pool edged in red brick. Old-timers are represented, too—there’s EWING and PRICE and more. One might wonder what BAZEMORE is doing here, among such noteworthy comp, but Kemba Walker is proud of him, too. Bazemore is a buddy of his, Kemba says.

In a small, bright den, some of Walker’s own jerseys are on display. There is one each from his time with his hometown AAU squad, the New York Gauchos; with Rice HS, in Harlem; at UConn, where he won a national title; with the Charlotte Bobcats, the franchise that drafted him; with the reborn Charlotte Hornets, with whom he’s thrived. But, amidst this sort of hoops shrine, there is an item out of place: a drum kit. It is padded and color-coded, an accessory for Rock Band, Walker’s favorite game. Today is a rare mid-season day off but it holds its own excitement—the Panthers will play in the Super Bowl in a few hours. No better time for Walker to jam out (virtually), one would think. Only there is a problem.

“The people here,” he says, referring to the group of friends and family with whom he lives, “they piss me off. They’re boring, man. They don’t like playing stuff like that. My dudes from college, though, they woulda loved to do this. That’s what we’d do in college. We used to go over to the girls’ team apartment and play Rock Band. Like Maya Moore and those girls. Oh, man. They used to kill that game.”

Bay windows overlook a quiet gated road. Walker, now 26, sits on a white L-shaped couch facing three TVs. He flips through the channels, searching for some daytime action on League Pass. He just woke up from a nap, but his goatee looks as sharp as ever. He’s wearing a snapback, a hoodie, athletic shorts and Jordans, all black, save for a white UConn t-shirt.

In the words of Jeremy Lamb, a fellow Husky who has reunited with Walker in Charlotte: “He’s very cool. He’s from New York, so—he can really dress.”

Walker, a Bronx native, is relaxed but talkative, and often flashes a wide grin. Perhaps he is just in a good mood today, but then, as rookie Frank Kaminsky points out, “He’s always got that big smile on his face.”

And why shouldn’t he? Walker has enjoyed a breakthrough season, averaging 21 ppg while shooting 43 percent from the floor—both career-bests. During one week in mid-January, he dropped 52 on Monday and 40 on Friday. Across February and March, he averaged 22.5 points while leading the Hornets to a 20-6 record. By April, Charlotte had established itself as top-10 on both ends, and proved to be a tough out in the Playoffs, falling to the Heat in seven games.

Drafted No. 9 in 2011, Walker entered the League right before the lockout. He struggled his rookie season, and Charlotte posted the lowest win percentage in NBA history that year. (Upside: “When I got here, [Michael Jordan] would come down and play 1-on-1,” Walker says. “He’ll never lose it.”) In the three seasons that followed, Charlotte seemed trapped in a dreary cycle of mediocrity—a decent season resulted in a decent Draft pick, which fed into another decent season, and so on. In those years, it was fair to doubt if Walker, a fan-favorite despite unsightly shooting percentages, would ever rescue his team from such misery. But in his fifth season, he did just that.

“He’s really improved his game,” Lamb says. “He has different ways of scoring now. He has a one-foot step-back, his handle has gotten even better, and he has different finishes around the rim.”

This season, Walker shot 57 percent inside the restricted area, outstanding for a PG. It represents an 8-point bump from last year—just one slice of an exciting trend. The previous season Walker shot 38 percent overall (on 15.8 attempts per) and 30 percent on threes (4.5). In the history of the NBA, no player has combined such volume with such inaccuracy. Now, his FGP is on par with John Wall’s, and he’s keeping pace with Chris Paul from deep (38 percent).

The stats and standings suggest Walker has ascended to NBA stardom. And yet, he’s still a score-first point guard, still 5-foot-something, still in Charlotte, still the best on his team; still Kemba, basically.

“You know what,” Walker begins, “I think I’ve played basically the same—I’m just shooting the ball at a higher percentage. I worked on my shot a lot this summer, and we got a shooting coach [Bruce Kreutzer—Ed.] who’s helped me a lot. Plus I’m taking better shots due to the players that we have.” (Over the summer, Charlotte acquired Lamb and Nicolas Batum via trade and signed Jeremy Lin.)

Hornets coach Steve Clifford believes Kemba’s breakout year was overdue. “A lot of times, we look at numbers, but we don’t study the why behind them,” Clifford says. “Often, a guy is playing on a team that makes it difficult on him because there’s no room [on the floor]. The additions to our roster have given Kemba more room. He’s always been good in the pick and roll, and now his long-range shooting has changed everything.”

Imagine guarding Walker. A screen is set for him at the top of the key. Your instinct is to stay under the pick, since historically, his strength is his drive. So you relax, leaving a suddenly good three-point shooter wide open. That’s bad. On Charlotte’s next trip down, you hop over that screen, afraid to allow another triple. But Walker ditches you near the arc and darts ahead. He can then (A) turn the ball over, but he won’t, since no one controls it better; (B) go to the rim, where he now finishes as well as anybody; or (C) kick it back out—the Hornets hit more threes per game than anyone in the East. So that’s also bad. And that’s why the Hornets are good.

Says Lamb of Walker: “He’s our leader, and we go as he goes.”

Al Jefferson takes it one step further. “Kemba’s the franchise,” he says. “This is his team. It’s very important for him to play that role. And he does so many great things. He’s a great offensive player, but he also takes the challenge on defense. If we’re facing Stephen Curry, it’s kinda hard for anybody to stop him, but Kemba will take that challenge. He wants that challenge. That’s something you only see the great players in this League do.”

On the floor, Walker is animated and busy. He gives his teammates the old grin after most buckets—his or theirs, big or small. (If the moment is significant enough, he might celebrate with a subtler version of the Antoine Walker shimmy.) He’s an excellent communicator on defense, according to Clifford, who adds that, “This year, he’s been more verbal in practices, in huddles, and in the locker room, too. That’s helped everybody.”

Walker is a thrill in transition, where nobody can cut him off. The NBA’s tracking data shows that he runs about 2.5 miles each night—among the most in the L. His buoyant movements in the half-court evoke prime Deron Williams, and Walker’s three-point shot evokes a guy on a small trampoline attempting a three-point shot.

Away from basketball, Walker’s life is grounded. “I go to the mall by myself sometimes and don’t get bothered much,” he says. “Charlotte is a really dope city. It’s real cool—it’s quiet. I love it.” A few years ago, Walker bought his parents Paul and Andrea a house nearby, and his mom sits behind the bench during home games. “She’s definitely the life of the games,” he says. “She’s a little nuts, but I guess it’s aight.” He goes to the movies and bowls. He begrudgingly plays 2K with his friends (rarely as himself).

Before each Hornets game, Walker eats a home-cooked grilled chicken sandwich or salmon filet. He then follows a modest pre-game tradition, but, as he explains it, “I can’t tell the world my ritual, ’cause then it won’t be my ritual like that, you know. It’s a secret.” But two of Walker’s teammates, who will remain anonymous due to the sensitive subject matter at hand, suggest that the proceedings involve a Future song, on which, according to one player, “Future actually does a little singing.” Laments the other player: “Everybody stopped liking the song ’cause we hear it every day.”

Mostly, Walker watches ball—a new love, oddly enough. Growing up, Kemba didn’t see himself as the The Next Great New York Point Guard, succeeding legends like Kenny Anderson, Mark Jackson, Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair. In fact, as he explains it, “I appreciate those guys, but I wasn’t into ball that much [as a kid]. When I went to high school, I still wasn’t really watching basketball. I was just playing ’cause I loved to play.”

Relaxing on the couch, Walker tunes in to a pair of matinee games: Celtics-Kings and Knicks-Nuggets. The room’s third TV, large and centered, is supposed to feature L.A. versus Miami, but Kemba is having trouble controlling the cable box. Instead, we are watching a chubby teenager explain some mathematic principles on a fuzzy local program.

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets shoots against Amar'e Stoudemire #5 of the Miami Heat during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on April 20, 2016 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)

Eventually, Walker finds the right channel. It’s Clippers by 7 late in the fourth, when Jamal Crawford hoists what would be a backbreaking three.

“Whew! Gametime,” announces Walker, familiar with the moment. Nobody in the NBA has scored more points than Kemba in the final few minutes of one-possession games this year. Of course, Walker’s reputation as a dependable crunch-time scorer precedes such numbers.

Clutch play first put Walker on the map. Back in March of Kemba’s junior year, UConn won the Big East Tournament in thrilling fashion. His step-back buzzer-beater against Pittsburgh icing the third of five wins that week remains the lasting moment.

The Huskies entered the Dance at No. 3, and, well, “When we got the brackets, I kinda went through, like, Yeah, we could beat them, we could beat them, we could get pretty far,” Walker remembers. Connecticut toppled Arizona (led by Derrick Williams) and Kentucky (Brandon Knight) to reach the final game where it faced Butler. Walker led all scorers with 16 in the win—the Huskies’ 11th in a row.

But Kemba doesn’t need to be reminded about any of that.

“I have, like, a hard drive somewhere, and I watch the games, from the first game of the Big East Tournament to the last game of the NCAA Tournament, all the time,” he says. “We wanted to shock the world.”

Indeed, the Huskies had at least one man glued to the screen.

“I don’t usually watch college basketball, but Kemba was the guy I watched,” says Jefferson, who entered the NBA out of high school. “I knew he’d be something special. That’s exactly who he is. He has that fire in his eyes. He’s a small guy, but he’s a giant trapped in a small body.”

Says the undersized dynamo himself: “I never really think about my height. You know because I always feel like, when I’m playing, I don’t feel like I’m 5-11 or 6-feet or whatever. I feel like I’m 7-feet, actually. When I’m playing, I don’t care. I don’t play like a little guy. When I’m playing, I feel like a giant.”

Leo Sepkowitz is an Editorial Assistant at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @LeoSepkowitzPhotos via Getty Images.