If you only watched Kemba Walker’s games against the Boston Celtics last year, you would probably think he’s the best player on the face of the earth. Walker averaged 30.3 points, 5.0 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game against the team he now calls his own, all while posting absurd .494/.439/.950 shooting splits. Charlotte scored 123 points per 100 possessions in his time on the court.
Walker is very good, but he’s not quite as good as his splits against Boston would suggest. Fear not though Celtics fans, there is still plenty to be excited about. We know you might not have the time to go back and dig through enough Hornets games to get a good sense of who Boston’s new jitterbug point guard is as a player (and who would want to subject themselves to such horrors).
Walker’s greatest strength comes with the ball in his hands. He’s next to impossible to stay in front of, hitting defenders with a seemingly endless stream of hesitations and feints. Walker stops-and-starts in the amount of time most players take just to halt their momentum, changing direction on a dime.
He uses his deep bag of dribble moves to breakdown defenders and access the paint, where he frequently draws fouls (78th percentile in drawing fouls on shots as compared to positional peers, per Cleaning the Glass) or finishes with panache.
Walker doesn’t have the size to score through help defenders at the tin, but he’s exceptionally crafty. He buries wrong-footed floaters and funky scoop layups with regularity.
Defenders can consider laying off Walker and plan to take advantage of his limited stature - he’s listed at just 6’1” and 184 pounds - by meeting him at the rim after he wears himself out pounding the rock, but Walker is too good of a shooter to give much space.
He’s not the kind of elite long-range marksman that a Steph Curry or Damian Lillard represents, or even Kyrie Irving for that matter, but give Walker a crack of daylight from beyond the arc, and he’s a real threat to make you pay. The same is true from virtually anywhere on the court, with the exception of the rim. Walker is just a touch too small to be expected to be particularly efficient as a pure scorer by the basket, but his ability to draw fouls helps make up for that fact substantially.
When things break down, Walker likes to go to a patented mid-range step back.
It’s not the kind of shot that coaches dream of, but it’s reliable enough in a pickle, and it represents a truth of Walker’s game: no matter the situation or the defense in front of him, he’s in control.
Walker’s blend of tight handle pairs with a strong feel for the game to allow him to probe deep into the teeth of a defense before making a decision about whether or not to look to score or facilitate.
He did far more of the former in his time in Charlotte, but Walker has plenty of capacity to set up his teammates when asked. Opponents can slow Walker with a well-timed double team. Long-armed defenders can swallow him up when working in unison.
Make your move a step too slow, however, and Walker knows what to do.
Add it all up, and you’ve got yourself a damn good offensive player. Walker will be Boston’s primary engine on that end of the court this year, a task he’s proven himself more than capable of throughout his career. Defense will be more of a challenge.
Walker tries reasonably hard to keep opponents from scoring. But regardless of effort, he’s just not very good. Walker is prone to getting beat off the dribble, and lacks the length to contest shots in the rearview in a meaningful way, or cause trouble when scrambling out to shooters in rotation.
His slight stature tends to hamper him in navigating screens as well.
Walker’s defense deficiencies are real, and they’ll matter more and more as the quality of opponent that Boston is facing increases. It’s not clear that he can hold up against the best-of-the-best. Brad Stevens has plenty of experience game planning around small point guards with defensive warts though, and the Celtics will be getting a major offensive boost anytime Walker is on the court.
Boston has found itself a reasonable facsimile of the player Irving represented last year, and he comes with none of the drama or pseudo-intellectual ridiculousness of the Celtics’ mercurial former star. Both of those truths should bring comfort to the Boston fan base.