It’s early Sunday morning at Madison Square Garden and the World’s Most Famous Arena is almost deathly quiet. The visiting Charlotte Hornets don’t command a wide audience so the visiting journalists are scarce. On the court Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is working on his baseline jumpers while Bismack Biyombo has just ended a stretching session, and is chatting with some international journalists on the sideline.
It’s the sight of another player sitting in the seat closest to the scorer’s bench on the Hornets’ side that draws attention. It’s Kemba Walker. He’s seated next to assistant coach Mark Price staring at a computer screen intently. The two talk for some time, possibly going over certain plays for the day’s game against the Knicks, and then Walker begins his pregame shooting ritual.
Even without Lance Stephenson and Al Jefferson, the Hornets are surging back into Eastern Conference playoff contention, and it all starts with the point guard’s play.
Walker has been having a season to remember. He’s averaging 18.9 points, 5.4 assists and 4 rebounds while playing almost 36 minutes per contest. He’s also turning the ball over at a career-low rate of just 1.6 per game – the Hornets are committing the fewest turnovers in the league this year at 11.8 – ranking him fourth in the league in assists per turnover ratio (3.49), having handed out 218 assists to just 63 turnovers.
Walker has improved his assist to turnover ratio each season since becoming a full-time starter in 2012.
“He’s played well,” says coach Steve Clifford. “He’s played at a high level all year, now he’s just shooting the ball better. He sets the tone on both ends.”
The Bronx native is putting numbers on the board. Walker has reached double-figures in 27 of the last 29 games, and 35 of the 39 games played this season. He’s also increased his per month scoring average each month this season from November.
“[I’m] just shooting the ball better,” explains Walker. “Shots are going in now. My teammates are finding me, doing a great job of getting me open getting me opportunities to score. I mean, I put in a lot of work during the off-season,” he adds. “I’ve always been a hard worker and now it’s just paying off.”
Rewind back to summer 2014, a time when most players choose to go back home and unwind, Walker bypassed heading back to his native New York and it’s vibrant nightlife to remain in Charlotte to work on his game, surprising even Clifford. Walker hoisted jumper after jumper with the team’s coaches and worked on his conditioning with the strength coaches. “Just the basic stuff – shooting, things like that. For the most part shooting the basketball [and] trying to get more consistent with that,” he says.
A gritty determination to continue improving.
“The one thing that he did, which is not easy to get guys to do, is he stayed in Charlotte for almost the whole summer,” said Clifford. “To me, it makes a big difference. A lot of guys wanna go travel, work out with workout guys – he worked out with our coaches, with our strength coach. He came back in unbelievable physical condition, and I think working out with the same coaches, and the same strength coaches, makes a big difference.”
And what of his relationship with Price, a four-time All-Star during his playing days, and one of the smartest at his position in NBA history. What has Walker been able to soak in while working with him?
“It’s been good. Mark is a great guy, he’s been teaching me so much. It’s a pleasure and an honor. For the most part [it’s] the in-between game. Knowing when to get to the basket, knowing when to use my floater, knowing when to do trick shots in the paint,” Walker asserts.
The evidence is in the numbers. Walker scored a career-high 42 points on Dec. 27 against Orlando, on Jan. 7 he nailed a game-winner against the Raptors, and his 28 points against the Knicks was his fifth consecutive game of at least 25 points – the longest streak of his career.
Charlotte are on a five game winning streak and sit just 1 1/2 games behind Miami for the eighth seed in the East, the superb play of Walker giving a glimpse into what the team’s potential could be once they get Stephenson and Jefferson back from injury.
“Of course. I’m very excited,” he says. “Those two guys [Jefferson and Stephenson] bring a whole new dynamic to our team, so hopefully when we get them back we can keep this run going.”
Continued team success breeds individual success and a berth for the Eastern Conference at an All-Star game in his hometown may be on the cards for Walker.
“Right now I’m focusing on winning and keep racking up wins for my team. Of course it would mean a lot – being from New York and things like that – but it’s not really on my mind.”