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Changing of the guard: the transformation of Kemba Walker

The Celtics point guard has become an assist machine.

Boston Celtics v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Assist-wise, this April has been the best month of Kemba Walker’s career since his third season in Charlotte. He’s averaging 7.0 assists per game over Boston’s 7-1 stretch compared to 5.1 over the entire season. That may seem like an insignificant development in Walker’s progression from an offseason stem cell injection in his left knee, but it does suggest that he’s peaking right now and more so, could be a primary point of attack point guard in the playoffs.

Consider this stat: since the trade deadline, Walker has found Tatum, Brown, and Smart behind the arc and the trio has hit 30-of-57 (52.6 3FG%) from three. With Walker acting as a primary ball handler, that unloads some of the playmaking responsibilities off of the Celtics’ two All-Stars. And for what it’s worth, Walker can still play pick-and-roll with a crashing big; Robert Williams is 7-for-7 on passes from Kemba.

For the sake of full disclosure, Walker is not the PnR PG that he was in Charlotte. From 2016 to 2019, Walker was in the top-4 in NBA Stats tracking percentiles of pick-and-roll ball handlers. In his final year with the Hornets, Walker was scoring 1.01 points per possession (90.9 percentile) for 11.9 points per game. Last year, he was slightly more efficient at 1.09 ppp for 10.4 ppg. This season has seen a significant drop to 0.88 ppp for 8 ppg.

Some of that could be attributed to his slow start after missing the first eleven games of the season. Some of that is Father Time catching up with the soon-to-be 31 year old. Some of that is generously accepting a role as the team’s third wheel.

But what makes Kemba’s recent run so impressive are the variety of angles and situations that he’s been effective in. As mentioned, before signing with Boston, Walker was one of the elite pick-and-roll point guards in the league. We’re used to seeing Charlotte Kemba operating above the arc with a big man freeing him up with a screen for a pull-up three, a mid-range jumper, or a drive to the hoop. He’s always been able to score at all three levels, but over the last few weeks, he’s been a key component to the Celtics’ commitment to more ball movement.

His diminutive size makes for limited passing angles versus a guy like LeBron James or Luka Doncic, but Walker is an underrated distributor. He still gets a couple of plays called for him as a primary ball handler in the PnR, and as noted by CelticsBlog’s Jeremy Stevens, since the trade of Daniel Theis, the Celtics have abandoned traditional two-big lineups and opted for more spacing. That’s given Walker--and in turn, Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams--more room to work. Simple pick-and-roll reads like these are old hat for the ten-year veteran.

Walker hasn’t been attacking the basket as much this season, at least to score. Despite looking much bouncier and quicker since the All Star break, he’s just not getting up as many shot attempts at the rim.

However, he’s still using his gravity in the restricted area to collapse defenses and get his teammates good lucks. Being able to get the ball from the break to the baseline changes the geometry and sight lines of the defense and he’s become increasingly effective with that whip around pass to the weak side and finding open shooters on the perimeter.

He’s also diversified his playmaking portfolio as a secondary option off the wing. In cases where Brown, Tatum, or Smart are initiating the offense, Walker is usually camped out in the corner. His three-point shooting is down this year and he doesn’t normally take that shot; instead, Walker has used his speed off the sidelines to attack closeouts, re-penetrate the paint, and get the ball moving side-to-side to force another defensive rotation and an open look.

Walker may no longer be the main engine of an NBA team. His role has evolved and his perceived standing in the pecking order may have dropped a level or two. However, what hasn’t changed is Walker’s commitment to put the team first and do whatever it takes to win.

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