By Sam Perley, hornets.com
Few seasons in the history of the Charlotte Hornets organization come close to measuring up to the one Kemba Walker put together during the 2016-17 NBA campaign. Armed with a much-improved three-point stroke, the sixth-year veteran point guard earned his first-career trip to the NBA All-Star Game and also moved up on a number of the team’s all-time rankings throughout the season as well. Not only did Walker firmly establish himself as one of the best players in the league at his position this year, but he’s also on the fast track to perhaps becoming the greatest Hornets player in franchise history.
Walker’s Red-Hot Start
Right from the beginning of the season, Walker’s reworked shooting mechanics began paying immediate dividends as he posted marks of 24.2 points on 47.6 percent shooting (43.4 percent from three-point range), 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals in 18 games through the month of November. During that span, Walker tallied a season-high 40 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in a 113-111 home loss to the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 11. Gerald Wallace (2006-07) and Al Jefferson (2013-14) are the only other players to record at least 40 points and 10 rebounds in a single regular season game while playing for Charlotte.
Walker’s numbers fell off slightly during December (20.9 points on 44.5 percent shooting and 37.2 percent from three-point range), but he got back on track at the start of the new calendar year. In 15 January appearances, the UConn product averaged 24.5 points on 44.5 percent shooting (40.2 percent from long distance), 4.4 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.0 steals.
NBA All-Star Game Comes Calling
The night of January 26, Walker got the news on the live TNT broadcast that he was selected to his first-career NBA All-Star Game, becoming the seventh Charlotte player overall and first since Gerald Wallace in 2009-10 to receive this honor. Walker would go on to finish with seven points on 3-of-6 shooting and six assists in 20 minutes off the bench for the Eastern Conference in the league’s midseason showcase event on Feb. 19. One night earlier, Walker also became just the fourth different Charlotte player to ever participate in the Three-Point Contest, finishing third behind Houston’s Eric Gordon and Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving.
Second-Half Surge for Kemba
Although Walker entered the All-Star Break in a bit of a slump (17.0 points per game on 36.8 percent shooting in seven preceding February outings), he exploded into the second half of the season with averages of 28.0 points on 47.2 percent shooting, 4.1 3PM, 5.1 assists and 1.3 steals in eight contests from Feb. 23-March 8. Amidst this stretch, he also earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors for the fifth time in his career on March 6, tying Wallace for the franchise record.
In 24 total post-All-Star-Break games, Walker averaged 24.8 points on 43.6 percent shooting (40.4 percent from three-point range), 3.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists for the Hornets. He also drained 91 three-point field goals during this span, the second-highest total in the NBA behind only Golden State’s Steph Curry (104).
Record Books and Rankings Overhaul
In 79 total games this season, Walker put up career highs in scoring (23.2 points), field-goal percentage (44.3 percent) and three-point percentage (39.9 percent). He also tied a career high in free-throw percentage (84.7 percent) in addition to averaging 3.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.1 steals per game.
When Walker’s 2016-17 campaign was all said and done, he found himself close to the top on a number of the franchise’s all-time leaderboards. He finished the year ranked second in career scoring (8,137 points), second in three-point field goals (792), second in made free throws (1,655), third in field goals (2,845), third in assists (2,380) and fourth in steals (606).
He also recorded the franchise’s second-highest single-season marks in scoring average (23.2 points), total points (1,830), 20-point games (55), and three-point field goals (240), the latter of which was also the sixth-highest total overall in the NBA this year. Walker is now one of just 11 different players in league history to hit 240 three-pointers in a single NBA campaign.
“They’re some great names that have come through this organization. For me to be achieving all these accomplishments, it’s been a special year individually for me and hopefully there’s more to come,” said Walker during postseason exit interviews on April 12.
Along with Allen Iverson and Isaiah Thomas, Walker is one of just three players 6-1 or shorter in the last 25 NBA seasons to average at least 23.0 points and 5.0 assists over the course of an entire year.
2017-18 Season Outlook
Walker has two years remaining on a guaranteed contract that runs through the 2018-19 NBA season. During exit interviews, Walker confirmed his first priority this summer will be some initial physical healing.
“It’s really disappointing not being in the playoffs, obviously, but it gives us a chance to get some rest and get our minds right, let our bodies unwind a little bit. These NBA seasons are such a grind, it really takes a toll on your body. So, to be able to get a chance to relax is going to be a good thing for everyone,” said Walker.
Hornets General Manager Rich Cho added during his end-of-season press conference on April 13, “[Kemba] had a great year. I think [he should be] just continuing to improve his shooting [and] his overall play-making. He shot 40 percent from three this year, but I told him he’s got to continue to work on that because you don’t want to see it go down either. He knows that and he doesn’t want to be complacent. He made the All-Star team this year and he wants to continue to keep doing that. To do that, he’s got to continue to work and I know he will.”