SLAM Top 50: Kemba Walker, No. 36

Eight seconds to go, Kemba Walker drives his man off of the screen at the top of the key.

Pitt center Gary McGhee elects to switch on to the much faster 6-1 guard in the final seconds.

Four seconds to go, Kemba attacks this glorified scarecrow—right to left crossover, McGhee stays with him—hesitation, McGhee is still with him—Kemba attacks the rim again but this time stops on a dime with a vicious stepback and rises to shoot with 2 seconds left.

Bong bong, and Gary McGhee’s ankles haven’t been the same since.

That quarterfinal buzzer-beater is one of the best memories to come out of those now disbanded Big East tournaments, and enshrined Kemba in our hearts as one of the coldest dudes to ever do it. Since that unbelievable NCAA Tournament run, though, it’s been relatively quiet for Walker—stressing the “relative” part—but now at 26 years old, the Bronx native is truly coming into his own and is poised to have another big season after his coming out party in 2015-16.

It seems four years in the NBA with consistent minutes really helped Walker’s game mature and develop into something not exactly better, but smarter. Last year Cardiac Kemba shot a career high 42.7 percent from the field to go along with another career-high 16.4 field-goal attempts. More shots, but more importantly, more efficient shots.

Kemba’s efficiency is due in part to his maturation, but let’s not forget the lengths Coach Cliff will go to to help Kemba get the best possible shot. High double ball screens, out of bounds plays, and isolations basically whenever Kemba gets bored are all results of trust in Kemba’s athleticism, mid-range game, and that he can get up a good shot from the locker room if he wanted to. Add all of that to the fact that he played the third most minutes in the League last year and, yeah, safe to say this dude is gonna get his.

The 2016-17 season may prove to be a struggle for Walker considering Jeremy Lin has left for the Brooklyn Nets, which translates to the Hornets losing a ball handler that helped lighten Kemba’s already back-breaking load. Many believe Lin was the reason why Kemba was able to flourish in the first place last season—not necessarily because Lin was an amazing guard, but because sometimes your prized stallion needs a drink of water, and maybe even a sugar cube or 2. Cue Ramon Sessions, not exactly a Jeremy Lin, but a savvy vet who’s been around the League and understands his role and what he can bring to a team.

Look to see Sessions and Walker playing together to make an undersized yet still potent backcourt duo that will help Kemba get into more off-the-ball screen action.

After that confidence-building season, Walker will be determined to get out of the first round and maybe even an All-Star game appearance if things continue to go his way.

Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2016-17—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.

Follow the entire #SLAMTop50 countdown.