Walker, Bobcats on a roll
There have been more than a few surprises in the first month or so of the NBA season, especially in the Eastern Conference. The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets sit atop the Atlantic Division in what has already developed into a heated rivalry, while in the Central, led by gunning guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, Milwaukee is making division foes fear the deer as they lead the division with a 7-5 record. There is a team in the Southeast division that is making waves thus far this season with their exciting play, and it is not the Miami Heat.
We're talking about the Charlotte Bobcats.
The Bobkitties (as their endearingly called due to their youth) are 7-6 right now and have matched last season's win total in just 12 games. There are a few reasons for this. Some might say it's because Charlotte hired Mike Dunlap to replace Paul Silas as its head coach. This is true; Charlotte is in the top five in the NBA in possessions per game this season, whereas the Bobcats were middle of the pack last year. This means Charlotte is getting up and down the floor more, leading to more opportunities to score. And it's shown on the stat sheet. Charlotte was dead last in the Association with 87 points per game last year, but this season the Bobcats are up four extra baskets to 95 PPG. It's not the Seven Seconds or Less Suns of 2006, but it's still a drastic improvement compared to last year.
A function of Charlotte scoring more points this season is its roster turnover. Corey Maggette, who shot a dreadful 37 percent from the floor last year, and inefficient minutes hog DJ Augustin have both left Charlotte. To replace these two very dispensable players, Charlotte drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeffery Taylor, and also signed guards Ramon Sessions and former UConn alum Ben Gordon. Simply put, Charlotte is performing better because, well, they're just better.
The main reason, however, why Charlotte is out to such a hot start (7-6 isn't "hot" I know, but it's relative with Charlotte) is due to the play of a certain diminutive point guard that students around Storrs might remember: Kemba Walker.
There's no question that Walker has been crucial to Charlotte's success this year. The Bobcats are two points better (per 100 possessions) than their opponents when Walker is on the court. When the former UConn star is off the floor, Charlotte is a putrid 13.7 points worse. Translation: Charlotte is pretty awful when Walker is off the court, and seem to trade punches when he is out running the point.
Now here's the question: Is Walker really that much better and improved than he was when he was a rookie? Is he doing the same things he did last year, just with more playing time?
Let's look at his numbers from last year, shall we? In 27.2 minutes per game, Walker averaged 12.1 ppg, shot an ugly .366 from the floor, dished out 4.4 assists per game and also turned the ball over 1.8 times per game. This season, Walker's scoring is up (18 ppg), his field goal percentage is considerably higher (.401, which isn't too efficient, but still better) and is averaging 5.7 assists and 2.5 turnovers in about 37 minutes per game. The raw numbers indicate that Walker is enjoying a significantly better year this season as opposed to last. However, because Walker is playing almost a full quarter of play more than he did in 2011-12, it's biased to put these numbers side-by-side and objectively say that Walker is definitely playing better. Even though we're talking about one of my favorite players in the NBA, I have to at least try to stay objective.
So, how can we measure Walker's numbers in a vacuum? I measured Walker's average per 36 minutes, a tool that NBA analysts and columnists use to project what a player would do if he were to play 36 minutes a game.
If Walker played 36 minutes per game and his numbers stayed absolutely the same in 2011-12, here's what he'd average: 16.1 points, 5.8 assists, 2.4 turnovers, 4.7 rebounds per game and 1.2 steals. And here are this season's numbers, if Walker's numbers minutes were to dip to 36 mpg: 16.2 points, 5.5 assists, 2.4 turnovers, 3.6 rebounds and 2.2 steals. If that's too many numbers for you just know that those numbers are eerily similar.
Does this mean that Walker hasn't improved at all this season? Absolutely not. In his familiar No. 15 (and fresh new Bobcats jersey at that) Walker has focused more on playing defense and also is taking smarter, better shots, as evidenced by his elevated field goal percentage. Moreover, Walker is only taking about 2.5 shots from behind the arc this season, whereas he took nearly four per game in 10 less minutes per game last year. In a more static role as the team's starting point guard, due to Augustin's departure, Walker isn't forcing up shots to try to give his team a boost off the bench like he was last year. This isn't saying that Walker isn't capable of putting up a few bad shots per game, because if you watched any of the Oklahoma City evisceration of Charlotte the other night, you probably know that this isn't true. Overall, Walker is taking better shots and causing more problems on defense, which will always be a recipe for a team's success.
As far as comparing Walker to fellow point guards, it's premature to say that he's one of the best point guards in the Eastern Conference. I saw on Twitter the other day that Walker "might be the best point guard in the entire conference," which is absolute heresy. If I had to rank him, he'd fall somewhere in the middle of the pack along the likes of Kyle Lowry and Jrue Holiday, and under guys like Deron Williams, Kyrie Irving, Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose (when he gets healthy, of course.)
Walker is going to be a solid NBA player and is making the most of his minutes right now, which is really all you can ask for out of a young player. He's going to have his off nights (like his zero-point performance against OKC) but barring any injury, Walker is going to play solid and close to 40 minutes a game by the end of the season because Charlotte is so young. I'd be shocked-shocked-if Charlotte sustains their pace and makes the playoffs. With Walker at the helm, however, it wouldn't come as too much of a surprise to see the New York City native take a young team much further than anybody would've ever dreamed.
After all, it wouldn't be the first time.
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