Rhythm is a peculiar aspect of an NBA player’s success; in essence, it encapsulates the perfect chemistry between body mechanics, fitness levels, and psychology.
We see players struggle with “cold streaks” all the time and commonly retort that those players need more “reps” or insist they should continue to play their game and the rest will come. In truth, what we’re saying is: let that player find their rhythm.
For Kemba Walker, that rhythm has been hard to come by. In a truncated NBA season, where games come thick and fast, and back-to-backs are an inevitable fact of life, the Celtics guard has been forced to surrender any and all momentum on a weekly basis.
Missing the start of the season due to recovery from stem cell treatment on a lingering knee issue, Walker found himself fighting an uphill battle on what’s already a fairly steep incline for the entire league. Not only did the Bronx native have to hit the ground running, but he had to adjust to a new role within the team’s system and would miss the second night of back-to-backs as the Celtics managed his wear and tear with an eye on the upcoming playoffs.
The result of these changes was Walker initially struggling to adapt and overcome the obstacles in his path. It’s no surprise that this season, Walker is averaging his lowest points per game in the last five years, his free throw attempts are at their lowest point since his rookie year, and his true shooting percentage has regressed to pre All-Star levels.
After initially returning to the lineup, fans were excited to see flashes of Cardiac Kemba, where a quick burst of pace created separation off screens or forced unwitting big men into heart-pounding scrambles as they tried to contest a wide-open layup following a whirlwind drive. Social media was abuzz with excitement at the heights a healthy Walker could propel this team to.
What no one anticipated was that, while the physical tools had returned to pre-injury levels, the psychology of the player and his feel for the game were still enduring the effects of playing through the pain barrier just a few months earlier.
“I have to mentally get over not feeling things if that makes sense. At one point in the season, I was feeling good, but because I have felt things in the past, I was like, ‘if I make this move, I have felt my knee hurt on this specific move.’ But it wasn’t hurting, so I just kind of had to get over that hump mentally,” Walker explained following the Celtics victory over the Golden State Warriors.
We’ve all been there. Think back to when you learned to ride a bike or rollerskate - you undoubtedly took a tumble at some point, and for a brief moment, were scared to resume the activity. While this example is incredibly simplistic and doesn’t factor in expectations, inordinate salaries, and relentless mockery on social media, it does provide some context to Walker’s struggles throughout the season. Walker knew the move wasn’t going to hurt but remembered when it did, which led to longer processing time, meaning the opportunity would come and pass without a resulting action.
Processing time is how quickly a player can pinpoint an advantage and react by making a play, be it a drive, shot, or pass - game recognition and perception processing is essential to elite-level basketball. Walker has consistently shown an above-average game perception, making quick, decisive decisions as a result. However, when your mind focuses on the physical drawbacks of making the necessary read, that processing time becomes exponentially longer.
Evan Zaucha recently released a neuroscientific dive into the notion of “feel” within basketball. The following quote sticks out to me when looking at Walker’s early season struggles:
“There are “record scratch” moments in pretty much every basketball game: the jarring “deer in headlights” vibe an offense gets when the perception of an opportunity comes too late, resulting in the opportunity disappearing into thin air.”
Here’s a great example of how Walker’s perception and rhythm were both out of sync earlier this year. Usually, Walker would quickly recognize the hedge and would reject the screen as a result. Instead, the four-time All-Star ponders his move for a moment before running into the defense’s trap, turning the ball over as a result.
Despite the rough nights when the basket seemingly had a lid on it, and the basketball God’s cared not for a $30 million-per-year contract, Walker continued to approach each night with professionalism and a tireless work ethic.
“I’ve been working my butt off to feel good consistently. I’ve just got to keep it up, which I’m going to do. My training staff and my strength coach have done a great job of helping me stay ready,” Walker explained.
It would seem that those results have come to the fore over the last five games, with the diminutive guard looking explosive when coming off screens while having the confidence to hunt mismatches in the pick-and-roll consistently.
Compare the decisiveness of this possession to the one shown earlier. Walker comes off the screen with a favorable switch onto Kevon Looney and immediately attacks downhill, using a nifty inside-out dribble and his speed as a catalyst for creating an advantage. Looney isn’t an awful defender, so he tries to beat Walker to his spot around the rim.
Here’s where rhythm and processing come into the equation. Walker notices Looney closing in, and rather than attempt the easy finish, he uses the inevitable contact from Looney to create separation before finishing with a reverse layup. The reverse layup allows Walker to focus on the difficulty of the shot without the fear of getting blocked due to the rim acting as a shield for him.
There wasn’t a moment of second-guessing or indecisiveness on the play; instead, Walker attacked with confidence and displayed incredible body control to finish the play. It’s that same killer instinct that’s been on display for the last five games from Walker, who seems far more comfortable with operating as the third option than he has throughout the rest of the season.
Walker has always been a threat around the rim due to the scoring gravity he possesses. However, in Boston’s recent upswing, he’s been using that gravity to generate easy looks for others. NBA Stats has tracked Walker making the pass on 58.5% of his drives in that span, with 26.8% of those passes turning into assists, which in part explains the recent surge in his assist-to-usage ratio.
Walker’s improved drive-and-dish performances have begun to put defenses into sticky situations. The guard is still predominantly a pick-and-roll maestro, using screens to create the separation required for his skill set to flourish. With Boston’s love of spread pick-and-roll sets (where there’s a shooter in both corners, along with a penetration threat on the opposite wing), teams are having to pick their poison when Walker is the initiator. If the defense sags to protect from the drive, Walker will light you up from the perimeter or force you into a close-out before feasting on the space in the mid-range area.
In the above possession, Walker recognizes the abundance of space in the mid-range due to Draymond Green playing drop defense to protect from the drive. Walker also recognizes his defender is battling through the screen from Tristan Thompson, meaning a three could quickly become a contested shot. So, Walker navigates to his favored area around the elbow before finishing an uncontested jumper from one of his sweet spots.
“He feels great, he looks great, we’ve stuck with it. I said earlier, we’re not going to chase seeding, and do anything that would not have our players feeling great if we make the playoffs,” Brad Stevens detailed when asked about Walkers recent performances.
Despite the eye test declaring that Walker is close to full fitness, the stat sheet is arguing to the contrary. The UCONN alum is still prone to cold spells, such as the one at the start of the fourth quarter against the Warriors, and his field goal percentage is suffering because of it. Alternatively, Walker is doing enough to provide additional spacing for the Celtics premier wing duo to consistently find routes to the basket while rebuilding his reputation as one of the better offensive guards in the Eastern Conference.
With only two more back-to-backs on the Celtics schedule before the playoffs begin, the table is set for Walker to continue developing his rhythm. If he’s over the mental hurdles he’s faced this season, that rhythm coupled with his improved processing speeds should allow Walker to reach a level closer to what we’ve come to expect from him. Despite all the criticism of both the player and coaching staff, it would seem they had a plan all along, and we’re all about to reap the benefits of its execution.