A couple weeks ago, on Nov. 11, point guard Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Hornets made headlines around the NBA by scoring 60 points against the Philadelphia 76ers in a three-point overtime loss. Two days later, he scored 43 points against the Boston Celtics, achieving the rare feat of scoring over 100 points in back-to-back games. After these performances, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith looked into the camera and said emphatically “Kemba Walker has arrived.”
The only problem is, Kemba Walker already had.
Walker reached national fame in his junior year of college, when he led UConn to the 2011 Big East Title with five wins in five days, including an iconic step-back jumper to beat Pittsburgh. He then led the No. 3 Huskies to the NCAA National Championship and won.
Walker was then selected with the ninth pick in the 2011 NBA Draft to the then-Charlotte Bobcats, known as one of the worst-managed franchises ever. Immediately, in the 2011–12 season, which was shortened due to an NBA lockout, the Bobcats suffered the worst record of any NBA team, finishing 7–59 (.106).
The franchise, owned by Michael Jordan in the small-market city of Charlotte, has undergone a slow and quiet rebuilding process that included a name change and four head coaches in just seven years. Charlotte has made the playoffs twice in this time, in 2014 and 2016.
One reason the Hornets have struggled so much is their poor-decision making in awarding contracts. While Walker has been the face of the franchise for a while, the Hornets have guaranteed underperforming players like Nicolas Batum and Cody Zeller contracts over $40 million, while Walker’s contract is only for $12 million.
The Hornets have been able to capitalize on the lax media attention given to Walker for a while, but this summer they will be able to give him a large enough contract to help him stay in Charlotte, which he says he intends to do.
Throughout this rebuilding process, Walker has continued the traits that made him so successful in college, using handles that rival Steph Curry or Kyrie Irving, his famous step-back that gives his six-foot frame more than enough separation from taller defenders, and most recently, his shooting. After the three-point revolution brought to the NBA by Golden State, Hornets coaches decided it was time to develop Walker’s three-point shooting.
A few years ago, to accomplish this, coaches combined his superior ball-handling skills with developing his range to create a deadly pull-up motion that gives Walker both separation and accuracy. Walker started to look like he could be as good as players like Curry and Irving, complete point guards.
However, while Walker’s shooting improved, the coaching did not. Former Hornets coach Steve Clifford was slow to recognizing not only the need for developing a three-point shooting team, but also one that could defend from beyond the arc as well. Instead, he opted for older players who better fit his old-fashioned system. While giving Dwight Howard one of his most productive seasons in recent memory last season, Clifford’s inability to defend the new-look NBA ultimately cost him the playoffs and his job.
New coach James Borrego, a former assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, was added to the Hornets this offseason to help them develop effective scoring weapons on offense. So far this season, it has worked. The Hornets currently rank fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency and Walker is now fourth in the NBA in scoring. Though the Hornets currently stand at 10–10, eight of their ten losses have come within five points.
With Curry injured and Irving’s Celtics currently struggling, the NBA is now poised to give Walker the attention he deserves — and has deserved for a few years now.
In the 2016–17 season, to garner support for All-Star voting, Walker and the Hornets created a series of small internet videos entitled “Kemba Walker: Charlotte Ranger” in which Hornets players acted in Wild West scenarios in order to get the quiet and humble point guard the attention he deserved, but did not receive, from fans and media pundits. While this gained Walker popularity, he was again quickly forgotten.
Last season, his popularity once again spiked after a 140–79 Hornets win over the Grizzlies in which Walker scored 46 points and 10 threes, but he was not given any attention again unless the Cavaliers were considering trading for him, but even they did not see his worth. One group that has noticed Walker over the last couple seasons, however, is the NBA players themselves, who gave him the NBA Sportsmanship Award in back-to-back years.
This year, there is a familiar sound coming from sports talk shows and NBA Twitter. Once again, Walker is being labeled underrated or undervalued. People blame his being “trapped” in a small-market team as the reason he does not get attention, but the Bucks, Timberwolves, Pacers, and especially the Thunder have received way more attention than the Hornets. Others will say it is due to the lack of playoff appearances achieved by Charlotte, but even in the years the Hornets have made the playoffs, very little attention was given to Walker.
The truth is, Walker could easily be as good, if not better, than someone like Irving or Curry. He has just not had the talented team around him, like the Cavaliers, Celtics, or Warriors, to help him space the floor and carry a lighter load, nor has he found himself in the types of petty drama these teams create. Now that fans are suddenly realizing how “underrated” he is, they want to trade him to another team, just as Borrego’s Hornets are finding their identity with younger, hungrier weapons like Malik Monk, Dwayne Bacon, and Miles Bridges.
While closing games hasn’t been the Hornets’ or Walker’s (Walker was blocked on go-ahead shot attempts in losses to Philadelphia and Atlanta) strength this season, the quickly growing improvement of Walker’s supporting cast should be enough to keep him fresh enough to finish games and carry the Hornets to new heights in the next few years.
This year, as he leads the league in three-point field goals made and stays in the top five for scoring, don’t let your attention stray from Walker again. His legacy is not defined by flashes of brilliance, but rather a quiet and steady ascension to becoming the superstar he already is.