Kemba Walker rode quite a wave into the NBA three years ago, having been a consensus first-team All-American at Connecticut, which he led to the national championship as a senior. Charlotte spent its lottery pick on him, trusting that he could meet or exceed the expectations incumbent upon a ninth overall selection. The circumstances surrounding Walker quickly darkened, as he spent his rookie season in and out of the starting lineup for a Bobcats team that compiled the worst winning percentage in NBA history. Al Jefferson and coach Steve Clifford, deservedly, receive much of the credit for having turned the franchise around upon their arrival last year, leaving Walker a secondary figure of sorts as the October 31st deadline for an extension to his rookie scale contract looms. Still, Walker’s game has grown over his time in the league, and while he hasn’t become a star, GM Rich Cho must decide soon if the 24-year-old has shown enough to prove that he has what it takes to be the starting point guard on a championship-level team.
Charlotte’s addition of Lance Stephenson and an Eastern Conference that’s wide open beyond the Cavs and Bulls puts Walker in line to play in the sort of high-leverage games this year that would help the newly rechristened Hornets test his meddle. That won’t help Cho and his staff as they ponder an extension, given the early deadline, and while it ostensibly would give them reason to hesitate, since a golden opportunity for evaluation awaits in the months ahead, the Hornets won’t be the only team watching the Jeff Schwartz client. Allowing Walker to hit restricted free agency next summer would invite bidders to drive up the price to retain him if he puts up strong numbers and helps lead the Hornets deep into the playoffs. The Hornets are well aware of how the process works, having signed Gordon Hayward to a maximum-salary offer sheet this summer that forced the Jazz, who exercised their right to match, to pay him more than they’d offered during extension talks last year.
Walker’s most significant leap to date came in between his first and second seasons, when he grabbed the full-time starting role and set career highs virtually across the board. A few of those numbers stagnated or declined this past season even as Walker saw more minutes per game, as his scoring average held steady at 17.7 points per contest while his shooting percentage dropped from 42.3% to 39.3%. The 6’1″ Bronx native took three-pointers a bit more often and slightly improved his accuracy, from 32.2% to 33.3%, but what seemed to drive down his field goal percentage the most was an increase in his frequency of long two-point attempts and a decrease of his shots at the rim. He more frequently shot from 16 feet and out than he did from three feet and in, according to his Basketball-Reference page, after the inverse was true during his second season in the league.
Ball-distribution is the No. 1 assignment for many, if not most, point guards, and the data suggests Walker has shown consistent improvement in that part of the game. He dished out 6.1 assists against 2.3 turnovers per game last season, the best ratio of his career. His per-36-minute numbers in assists and turnovers were also the best he’s recorded to date. Still, those gains weren’t enough to offset his poor shot selection, as his PER declined from 18.8 in 2012/13 to 16.8 this past year.
Walker was fifth in the league with 2.0 steals per game in 2012/13, but last season saw that number cut nearly in half, to 1.2. The team seemed to benefit from his more conservative approach. The then-Bobcats gave up just 99.1 points per 100 possessions with Walker on the floor compared to 105.1 when he sat last season, according to NBA.com. The gap wasn’t nearly as profound the year before, when Walker’s lineups gave up 108.2 points per 100 possessions compared to the 110.7 points per 100 possessions the Cats surrendered without him. Charlotte was statistically better defensively with Walker on the floor even when he was a rookie, though his teammates weren’t exactly world-beaters.
John Wall was the only point guard to receive a rookie-scale extension last year, and Walker isn’t in his max-salary neighborhood. Three point guards received rookie-scale extensions the year before, with Ty Lawson and Jrue Holiday the closest comparisons. Walker’s ball-handling numbers closely mirror what Lawson put up the season before he signed his four-year, $48MM extension, and they exceed what Holiday put up right before his four-year, $41MM extension, even though Walker lags behind both Lawson and Holiday as a shooter. Neither deal comes off as a bargain for their respective teams two years later, but they aren’t especially player-friendly contracts, either.
The Hornets would probably be pleased to come away with an extension that committed them to Walker for four years and $40MM, as I predicted earlier in the offseason that they would. Schwartz would rightly hesitate to let his client go for such a number and instead target one in the $41-48MM range that Holiday and Lawson established. We’ll soon see just how high the Hornets are willing to go to keep their positive momentum of the past two offseasons rolling.