Charlotte Hornets

Kemba Walker is the league's most unassuming star

Kemba Walker (NBA Getty Images)

There have been just three players in NBA history to have a season averaging at least 3.5 made threes per game. You don't get any prize for guessing Steph Curry - in fact, he's working on his fourth such season - and you'll be forgiven for incorrectly assuming Klay Thompson is another. You might not be surprised to hear that James Harden is on pace to do so for the first time this season.

On pace to be the third in the history of the NBA is Kemba Walker.

If not for the conspicuous hint of the title of this article, you might have run through a few dozen more names before landing on Walker. In a league that loves little more than dazzling, dribbling, shooting and scoring, one of its best at all three gets perpetually overlooked. In an early season filled with eye-popping numbers, Walker is the league's fourth-leading scorer, while making more threes than Klay Thompson and putting up a nearly identical PER to 2018 MVP James Harden.

Through 19 games, Walker has propelled the Hornets to the league's fifth-best offensive rating of 112.7 . Considering their personnel limitations, it's impressive that they've been better than the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets just to name a few. The fact that they've done so with their second-leading scorer being Jeremy Lamb at 14.1 points per game is incredible.

Prior to Lamb's recent surge in production, Charlotte was the only team in the league without multiple 14 points per game scorers. The only team that came close was the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have started the season 4-14.

While mentioning the Cavaliers, it's worth touching on Charlotte's horrific 113-89 loss in Cleveland two weeks ago. Walker couldn't buy a shot and finished the game with just 7 points on 2-16 shooting. The game was a disaster and a loss the Hornets can't afford; but more than anything else, the loss illuminated just how important Walker is to Charlotte's success.

That performance was an anomaly for Walker. His previous low in scoring this season was 18 points in a game the Hornets won by 32. He has worked hard to become more consistent and eliminate those nights from his game and, besides the notable exception, has done a very good job of doing that by becoming incredibly efficient offensively.

As awful as a loss that was, Walker bounced back in a major way just days later, scoring a career-high 60 points in a heartbreaking loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Walker followed his 60-point outburst with a 43-point performance in a win over Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics.

Irving, one of the league's premier point guards, had nothing but good things to say about his peer:

"Since I've known him - since he was probably about 14 or 13 [years old] - watching him play, he's always had the heart of a champion, he's always played with that willful kind of attitude. Just going out there and just being who he is, and that's a dominant guard, going at anybody and makes his teammates better."

Walker's usage has jumped a bit from 26.6 percent last season to 30.8 percent this year, but his improved numbers can really be chalked up to better shot creation and selection. Walker is still a great mid-range shooter but has limited the number of shots he takes from that area unless he's left wide-open. A career-high 72.5 percent of his shots come either from three or at the rim.

While he's an effective off-ball shooter, Walker's become an elite shot-maker after having the ball in his hands for an extended period of time. 39.8 percent of his shots come after he has held the ball for six or more seconds , and he has an eFG% of 58.6 percent on those attempts - roughly equivalent to any shot from Kyle Korver .

In isolation, Walker has dominated. He's in the 97th percentile, averaging 1.33 points per possession on isolation plays. Given his diminutive frame and pretty low free throw rate, that number will likely fall over the course of the season. He has a great chance to stay in the top 10 percent, but very few players not named James Harden average 1.3 points per possession on isolations over the course of an entire season.

Another area Walker has thrived - and one I don't anticipate as much regression - has been as a pick-and-roll ball handler. He leads the league with 12.0 pick-and-roll possessions per game and is in the 93rd percentile with 1.15 points per possession. While his size can be a limitation in isolation, it can be a real asset in pick-and-rolls, allowing him to quickly sneak around screens or split double-teams to find the open man or a lane to the basket.

With all that said, the stretch Charlotte is currently in is vital to the trajectory of its season. The Hornets have played the third-easiest schedule so far according to Basketball-Reference, and after going 2-3 against the Sixers, Celtics, Pacers, Thunder and Hawks, they open up a four-game homestand that consists of the Bucks, Hawks, Jazz and Pelicans.

For Walker, these games have featured key matchups against some of the best point guards in the league including Ben Simmons as well as the Russell Westbrook and the aforementioned Irving.

Looking ahead, Charlotte will also play host to Denver and Los Angeles Lakers in the next few weeks - more opportunity for Walker to continue his amazing run.

Walker hasn't just played at an All-Star level this first month, he's played like an MVP candidate, showcasing his growth over this recent stretch. By maintaining his high level of play against the stars he has faced over the past week, Walker has begun to get the recognition and award momentum he deserves.

In a broader sense, these games have been huge for the Hornets as a team. They are currently hovering around eighth in the East, but are just a few games back of fourth and a couple losses up on 11th. A 3-1 or 2-2 record over the next week could launch them up the standings, but a 1-3 or 0-4 record could just as easily drop them out of a very early playoff spot.

We'll have a much clearer picture in a couple weeks, but the Hornets have looked like a clear playoff team so far.

In all likelihood, if Charlotte does make the playoffs they would face one of the behemoths of the East in Philly, Boston, Toronto or Milwaukee. The Hornets would be heavy underdogs in any of those series, but so far this season, Walker is proving to be the type of singular talent capable of pushing a favourite to a very uncomfortable six or seven-game series, and maybe even pulling off the upset.

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