The start to the 2020-21 season has not been kind to Kemba Walker.
The four-time All-Star looks anything but, averaging the fewest points (15.9) since his rookie season and a career-low in assists per game (4.0) while shooting a career-worst 35.7 percent from the field and also 30.9 percent on threes.
“I’ve just got to be better. That’s really it,” Walker said following another disappointing outing in a 100-91 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday in which he shot 4-of-20 for 14 points with more turnovers (3) than assists (2).
His season averages are concerning for several obvious reasons. This is the guy currently being paid $34.3 million this season, the 13th-highest salary in the league. The Boston Celtics are looking for a slightly better return on their investment. His return was supposed to round out a trio of consistent 20-point scorers along with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, each of who could take turns laying waste to opposing defenses.
Is Walker’s continuous slow start through nine games simply the product of rust he’s still shaking off?
He remains a frequent pick-and-roll ballhandler and pull-up 3-point shooter, two of the biggest staples from an offensive arsenal that has produced five consecutive 20-point seasons. He’s simply not converting out of those plays, dropping from the 92nd percentile in P&R last season to just the 41st so far this year while shooting 30.4 percent on pull-up triples compared to 36.5 percent in 2019-20.
Have age and attrition possibly taken their toll in ways that can’t be undone?
After taking just 10.4 percent of his shots from the non-restricted area paint last season — also known as floater territory — that number has increased to 15.7 percent. That at least partially explains a free throw rate of just 17.9 percent, which would be the lowest of Kemba’s career by far.
For a player usually all smiles, the struggles are beginning to show in Walker’s emotions. On the first possession of the second quarter against Phoenix, the referees missed Langston Galloway’s hand grabbing Kemba’s waist as he tried to draw a 3-point foul. There was only silence as the ball never hit the rim. On Boston’s next possession, Damian Jones blocked Walker’s layup after it had already hit the glass. Again, there was no whistle.
If the disappointment of poor play was bubbling to the surface of Kemba’s psyche, the inability to try and remedy those feelings with five points Walker felt he’d earned boiled them over the surface, resulting in a technical foul.
“I let myself get a little bit too frustrated. I just can’t have that,” Walker said after the game. “Like I always say, these guys, they look to me to be that positive energy. I wasn’t that today. But it was pretty frustrating, but at the end of the day, if it’s not a call, it’s not a foul. And I’ve got to realize that.”
Drawing conclusions from a nine-game sample size might be premature, but there’s already mass hysteria that has surrounded every minute of his return and many seem eager to hit the panic button.
The Celtics have played eleven games since Walker made his season debut. To compound Kemba’s struggles, the team has been hit with a barrage of injuries that have contributed to a 4-7 record in that short stretch. Marcus Smart has missed four straight with a calf strain. Soreness in Jaylen Brown’s left knee has kept him out the last two games. Jayson Tatum was sidelined for five straight games after contracting COVID-19. Even Walker has missed two games for load management on the second night of back-to-backs. According to Cleaning The Glass, that core four was a plus-7.4 per 100 possessions last season, has appeared in just 28 minutes across two games his season.
With lineups and rotations in a constant state of flux, Boston hasn’t exactly had the luxury of easing Walker back in the ways they might’ve expected, especially with backup point guard Payton Pritchard also missing time with a sprained MCL.
Despite playing 3.9 fewer minutes per game compared to last season, Kemba’s field goal attempts per-36 minutes have increased by 2.2 while his usage rate (29.2) is tied for the second-highest mark of his career.
“I think we can all do a better job for him,” Brad Stevens said of Walker. “And so that’s what we all will focus on. That’s what I’ll focus on.”
Boston’s singular focus is to break through to the NBA Finals in 2021. That’s why Walker made his debut nearly a month after the season began and why he only just cracked 30 minutes for the first time this season in the Celtics win over Golden State last Tuesday. He has to be at his best when Boston needs him to be at his best. That wasn’t in January and it’s not going to be in February or even March.
With homecourt somewhat of a returning factor, would the Celtics love to have Walker help them climb from the #4 spot in the Eastern Conference? Definitely, and there is a fine line between having Kemba contribute towards that goal while still keeping an eye on the ultimate prize.
Walking that tightrope, however, has become a lot harder for both he and the C’s because of all the missed games from other key members of the rotation.
Having not played since September 27th with no training camp and barely any practice time, getting Walker back to form was always going to be a process, one that’s been elongated with injuries and COVID protocols it seems Boston finds itself dealing with on a near-daily basis.
But if the Celtics won’t be defined by regular-season results, maybe Walker shouldn’t either. At the minimum, he should first be given the proper runway to build the momentum fate seems hellbent to keep him from finding for now.
“It’s going to change,” Stevens said of his starting point guard’s early play. “There’s no doubt.”