Q&A: Hornets' Walker starts season in scoring groove
NBA.com Global on Oct 30, 2018 08:21 AM
CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 20: Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets drives to the basket against the Toronto Raptors on December 20, 2017 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)
By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
With the new season underway, and with his game as hot as almost anyone to start, Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker was asked what impressed or surprised him about the first 10 days or so of 2018-19.
“Nothing besides my own play,” Walker said, laughing after a shootaround Friday (Saturday, PHL time). “Nothing besides seeing my name near the top of the NBA scoring, which is pretty weird.”
Eh, maybe not so weird. Walker, a two-time All-Star, is the Hornets’ all-time leading scorer. At 28, the former ninth overall pick in the 2011 Draft is in his prime as a player. The 41 points he dropped on Milwaukee on opening night and the fact he’s gone for at least 23 every game since (with three more games of 30 or more) seems like the next logical step.
It earned him the season’s first Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor and as Week 2 ended, his 31.7 ppg trailed only Golden State’s Stephen Curry (33.9) and Portland’s Damian Lillard (33.8).
“It was [gratifying]. Who wouldn’t want it to keep going?” Walker told NBA.com. “I know teams will be gearing up on me and double-teaming me. But I just want to win, man. I want to get back to the playoffs any way possible. I don’t care what I average the rest of the year.”
Walker, in the final year of a four-year, $48 million deal he signed in 2014, never has shot the ball so well -- 40.5 percent from the arc, 46.6 percent overall. Neither has he shot it so often and from such range. Walker is averaging 23 shots, including more than 11 3-point attempts.
His usage rate of 33.5 trails only Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (35.1) and his 29.4 PER puts him ahead of Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Is it sustainable? That was one of multiple topics Walker talked about with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner:
Steve Aschburner: On Media Day, you made it sound as if you would hit this season hard from the start, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen. How do you explain it?
Kemba Walker: I knew I had a good summer. I put in the work and the time and the effort to get better. And I’m healthy -- I haven’t felt healthy like this in a long time. Over the last three summers, I wasn’t healthy, having knee surgeries and ‘scopes. So I was rehabbing. This summer, I had a chance to work on my game. Being able to work on my shooting over a long period of time really helped as well.
SA: You took as many 3FGAs last season as you shot your first two seasons combined. Now you’re launching them at a pace (11.3 per game) to break Steph Curry’s single season record (886). Is this a conscious change by you or a reaction to the league’s preferred style?
KW: Both. The league definitely has changed from the time I first came in. Everybody’s shooting more threes, no matter their position. Me, I’ve just become more confident. I worked on my shot tremendously to get to this point. I’m comfortable now shooting it, whenever I can get to my spots.
SA: What’s your preference -- pull-up threes, spot-up threes or those halfcourt threes like Steph takes?
KW: Not at all [laughing]. Steph is a different type of shooter, maybe the best to ever shoot the basketball. But I’m comfortable shooting them however. It doesn’t matter. If I can get ‘em up, I try to make ‘em. But I do love for my teammates to create for me and get me some easy ones. It does take some stress, some pressure, off of me.
SA: Your coach, James Borrego, has talked of using you more off the ball. Does that suit you?
KW: It really helps. It gets me a little bit of rest, and it opens up a different dynamic in my game. As well as giving other guys a chance to have the ball in their hands and create for others. But the main thing is, it just keeps me fresher, which is huge for me.
SA: What’s your take on the Charlotte rookies?
KW: Oh, I’m a huge fan. Devonte’ [Graham] really hasn’t gotten a chance to play yet, but I’ve always been a huge fan, even when he was at Kansas. Just love his game, love his poise. And that’s skill -- I don’t think people understand how much of a skill it is to be poised, especially at a young age. It’s something that I didn’t have, something that took me a very long time to get. Miles [Bridges], he’s a hard-playing kid. Smart, always in the right spot on both ends of the floor. I can see him getting more minutes as the season progresses.
SA: Malik Monk is a second-year guy who didn’t have the most satisfying rookie season. What do you see from him, and can he become a reliable backcourt mate?
KW: Oh yeah, he’s growing. Every single day. His efficiency will come. He needs time to learn, needs time to develop, to figure out where his shots are going to come. He’s getting better already. He’s passing the ball really well, getting other guys involved. He needs to know we need him every night, with him coming off the bench for us.
SA: Your rookie season was about as challenging as could be -- delayed by a lockout, rushed through training camp and a quickie preseason, and then a 7-59 experience. Did that set you back as a player?
KW: Nah, it wasn’t a setback. It was humbling. I took it as a point in my career where I was going through adversity. It was tough -- nobody likes to lose -- and through my basketball career I felt I had been a winner. But I just stuck to it, just kept working hard.
SA: You said you don’t want to talk anymore about your free agency next summer -- and your general manager, Mitch Kupchak, is on record saying, “Our intention is for him to end his career in a Hornet uniform.” Some people wonder what the market might be, though, given how many terrific point guards are out there. So let’s address that another way: what is it like competing with all those rivals?
KW: It’s unbelievable, man. Every night. Every single night, somebody is there to … I can’t even explain it. Every team, there’s so many great point guards out there who are just ready to showcase their talents. There are young guys ready to show how good they are. Yeah, it’s a point guard league.
SA: We’re seeing more and more teams switching everything defensively. How hard is that on a 6-foot-1 point guard?
KW: It’s … tough sometimes. Some matchups, you don’t want to get. But I rely on my teammates to help out as much as possible. The most challenging part probably is boxing guys out. But I’m always up for the challenge.
SA: Some players talk or at least play like defense is optional. Your thoughts?
KW: Not at all. I’m paid to do it all. It’s not even about being paid -- I’m just competitive. I want to play defense. I want to score. I want to do it all.
SA: I’ve often wondered what it’s like to play for the team that Michael Jordan owns. Other teams, the owners aren’t basketball experts. But that’s not the case for the Hornets. Is it intimidating?
KW: I wouldn’t say intimidating. I love it. I want my owner to have played. He knows what’s going on, he knows how it feels after losses, after wins. Traveling. Being tired. He’s been through it. He knows what it takes to win games in this league. Even though basketball’s a bit different now from when he played, but still, he knows. I feel like I’m at an advantage because I can go to him, I can ask him things. Or he can just come to me, or text me or call me to let me know things. And let me know how to get past things. No, it’s an honor for us, it’s an honor for me to have him as an owner.
SA: How is basketball different from when Jordan played?
KW: For me, just the threes. A lot of bigs shooting threes. The bigs are different in general, you know? Back with MJ, I feel like the shooting guards and the forwards were dominant, and it was more of a post-up league. Now it’s a point guard’s league for the most part. And it’s not a post-up league much anymore. There are so many threes up in the air.
SA: Do you little guys resent the stretch-fours and stretch-fives coming out onto your turf these days?
KW: Yeah, man, it’s crazy. But it’s fun. Just seeing the development and the change. Even from when I first got in the league it wasn’t like that. But guys are so talented nowadays, it’s unbelievable.
SA: Tell me about the Big Brothers Big Sisters work you do, mentoring four kids -- two boys and two girls -- in the Charlotte area.
KW: Just to be in their lives. I take ‘em out to eat, take ‘em to Dave & Buster’s every now and then. It’s fun. I try to avoid the cameras. It’s not for social media. It’s not for anything but them. The kids are doing great in school. That’s the biggest progress, that’s what you want. They’ve really started to love basketball now -- they come to games sometimes. It’s been fun to see them grow, each and every time I see them. One of the kids, his mom passed away. I know it’s been a struggle for him. For me to be able to help get his mind off of that for a time, just be there for him, that’s definitely rewarding for me but I hope it’s more rewarding for him.
SA: You’re in your eighth season, and you’ve played a total of 11 playoff games. What stands out for you about the postseason?
KW: I remember every game. We played Miami twice. The first year  was when they had LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. They swept us, but I thought we played really well. Obviously it wasn’t enough -- they had three Hall of Famers. I remember the level of intensity those guys played with. I remember telling myself, the next time I get to the playoffs, I’m going to try my best to play like that.
The next time , that’s what I did. People thought we might get swept again, but we went to seven games. It was really fun. The whole atmosphere was so intense. I loved it. You have to take your game to a whole ‘nother level. You have to play hard every possession, every second of those games. The competitiveness, the toughness, everything goes up.
SA: A problem that team had, it still has -- you’re carrying such a big load offensively. Do you need a second reliable scorer, and is that guy on the roster now?
KW: Of course. We need it. I’m not going to have huge games every night. It’s on one of these guys to step up. I think guys are still searching for their roles at this point, especially with a new coach, new system. We’re still learning. But as the season progresses, I think they will. We have guys who are capable of putting points up for us.
SA: The All-Star Game this season is in Charlotte. You’ve been selected twice. What would you think of playing in that game in your market?
KW: That’d be amazing. To be in Charlotte, the team that drafted me, the team I’ve played with for eight years now, it would be a really special moment. Hopefully I can get there. It’d be fun. A really important and fun moment in my career.
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