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Midseason progress report: Kemba Walker

Quite frankly, Kemba was signed as an offensive weapon.

Boston Celtics Introduce New Players Kemba Walker And Enes Kanter Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Quite frankly, Kemba Walker was signed as an offensive weapon. The 3rd Team All-NBA point guard swapped Charlotte for Boston during the summer, filling the hole left by Kyrie Irving’s departure. In doing so, Boston obtained a guard capable of elevating the team in terms of both chemistry and skill level. Coming into this season, Kemba was one of the leading players in pick-and-roll usage and efficiency, killing teams with his ability to either pull up off the screen or get downhill and make something happen as defenses scrambled. His ability to finish around the rim and draw fouls while doing so is invaluable against teams that like to play a stern, physical type of defense.

When at the line, Kemba is a career 83.7 percent free throw shooter, consistently punishing big men who fall for his body feints and foul him on course to the basket. His ability to score from deep allows him to punish the defense no matter how they react. This usually results in him getting great looks from the “long two” range, where he is shooting 48 percent this year, ranking in the 80th percentile per Cleaning the Glass.

Then there is his ball handling. Kemba averages only a 9.7 percent turnover rate. In crunch time, the Celtics are literally in good hands. He ranks in the 84th percentile for the season and has consistently been in the top 10 percent league wide for limiting turnovers.

While he is not known as a dime-dropper, Walker is a capable playmaker and one of Boston’s best options with the ball. He does force reactions from the opposition which enables his teammates to take up scoring positions regularly. Those scoring positions force rotations, rotations create gaps, and Kemba will attack those gaps at speed and get the ball moving to the weak side of the floor.

Basketball Reference has his career assists at 5.4 per game which is respectable, but the impact he has on scoring opportunities for others is somewhat immeasurable. His personal gravity is a legitimate sign of a star caliber player.

All great guards can score in ISO situations, including Walker. It’s a modern prerequisite for the position which in part defines what echelon of player they fall into in the NBA stratosphere. There is a trade-off here though: go ISO too much and you risk negatively affecting the production of the team which in turn reflects negatively on the player himself. Think Kyrie in 2019.

Kemba walks this line perfectly, knowing when to keep the ball moving and when to attack his man out of isolation plays. Synergy has him attacking the ISO 68 times so far this season, scoring on 21 of his 49 attempts while drawing shooting fouls on a further 18 plays. These escapades have placed him into the 85th percentile. Considering he is only attacking this play type 6 percent of the time he has the ball is rather impressive.

Let’s cover that one glaring hole in his offense before looking at the issues he has on defense. Over 115 transition possessions, Kemba has gone 37 for 100 from the field, averaging just 0.8 points per possession. Synergy has him ranked in the 12th percentile of players for transition production. That means 88 percent of NBA players are performing at a higher level when pushing the pace following a rebound or turnover. The question is why? Why is a player of Kemba’s quality struggling so much when he is tasked with beating others down the floor?

Considering that his previous years in Charlotte do not show a correlation in this statistic, it would be safe to assume it’s because Kemba is deferring to his younger, more athletic contemporaries which is not a luxury he has had up to this point in his career. However, when the opportunity arises, he needs to be ready to run the floor and get to the rim. Otherwise, teams will force the ball into Kemba’s hands when the ball leaks out following a rebound or miss.

On the defensive end of the floor, Kemba is a target for opposing teams due to his size. Standing at just 6-feet tall, teams look to get the ball over the top of him or out muscle his 171-pound frame. There is evidence to this claim on multiple levels.

Jump shooters are seeing good success levels when being guarded by him, shooting 115 for 285 in total which is good for 40.4 percent from the field. However, when taking three-point attempts into consideration, opposing players are shooting an adjusted field goal percentage of 53.9 percent. Another aspect teams are finding success with is when Kemba is forced to guard ball handlers coming off of screens. Primarily he will go over the screen and put pressure on the ball handler during his rear-view pursuit, which he does at a league average level. The issues arise when Kemba opts to go under the screen, which indicates he fears the shot more than the drive from those players.

When going under a screen, Kemba’s effectiveness on defense becomes almost non-existent with players shooting 56 percent regardless of if they drive or pull-up for the jumper. This can again be linked to his size, as he is unable to truly contest players shots without the risk of fouling. His ability to draw charges in possibly a by-product of this inability, with him learning how to use his frame in the best possible way on defense.

Being so susceptible to head-hunting on that end of the floor leads to him being hidden by Brad Stevens, just as his predecessors of Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas were before him. Teams can sniff out opportunities for the mismatch though, as evidenced early in the game against the Thunder when Kemba found himself switched on to Danilo Gallinari multiple times early in the game.

That susceptibility adds pressure on the rest of that unit too, as they need to rotate quick enough to give Kemba a viable option to switch out on to. As he switches out, gaps with inevitably form which opposing teams can attack. It’s a double-edged sword that Boston has become used to dealing with in recent years due to their love-ties with undersized guards.

These mismatches are where he provides the least value. Teams will target him repeatedly during half court sets, especially during the playoff when the game slows down and becomes more methodical. For a player who has only played in 11 playoff games in his career, there will be a steep learning curve for him on the defensive end of the floor. To his credit, Kemba is currently ranked 3rd among guards for charges drawn according to NBA Stats. He has been sneakily good at getting under shooters as they drive into the lane, saving his team valuable points on multiple occasions.

Overall, Kemba Walker is an elite point guard in the league, capable of putting the Celtics on his back and leading them over the finish line. While he does have some shortcomings due to his size, he makes up for them with his ability to manipulate teams and punish them for any slight misstep. He is one of the best players on the team who continually puts his teammates in winning positions.

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