Something happens to Kemba Walker whenever he returns to Madison Square Garden and his hometown of New York City to play against the Knicks.
It’s almost like the plot to Gremlins. Don’t get them wet, no bright light and don’t ever feed them after midnight, because the repercussions can be ruinous.
When Walker steps onto the stage at the world’s greatest arena, going back to his majestic performances in the Big East Tournament for UCONN, he transforms from an inefficient shooter and streaky scorer, a guy who unpredictably vacillates between a poor-shooting gunner and a drive-and-dish facilitator, into an NBA All-Star.
Last night in Manhattan, after the Knicks’ 102-94 victory, NBA Rookie of the Year front-runner Kristaps Porzingis continued his stellar early season play by scoring 29 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
The slender, 7-foot-3 twenty year old from Latvia has quickly turned the downpour of draft night boos – the ones that rained down from those still suffering from the lingering PTSD of former GM Ed Tapscott’s ill-conceived drafting of Frédéric Weis with the 15th overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft – into a cacophony of raucous cheers.
His interior footwork in the post, outside touch, defensive and rebounding work against Charlotte were all exceptional.
The Garden hasn’t been this alive since Carmelo was averaging 29 points, seven rebounds and three assists, and when J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton, Tyson Chandler and 157-year-old Jason Kidd were winning 54 regular season games and battling the rugged Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals under head coach Mike Woodson three years ago.
For those who have long-followed Kemba Walker’s career, who’ve seen him play at Harlem’s Rice High School and when he was putting in work under the aliases of “EZ Pass” and “The Prince of Zamunda” in the crucible of Rucker and Dyckman Parks, we’ve long known that the saying, “Numbers don’t lie,” does not correspond to what Kemba brings to the table.
It’s easy to disparage his shooting percentages, but when you sift through John Hollinger’s hoops sabermetrics and player efficiency ratings – an all-in-one ranking that melds numerous variables such as field goals, free throws, 3-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, and negative results such as missed shots, turnovers and personal fouls into one number - Walker, in his fifth NBA season, is playing like a borderline All Star right now, ahead of more celebrated names like Washington’s John Wall, Memphis’ Mike Conley, San Antonio’s Tony Parker and the Clippers’ Chris Paul.
It’s long been known that he’s a dependable, clutch player who performs at his best in the most pressure-filled moments.
If you somehow missed the 2010-2011 college basketball season, when UCONN started the year unranked and went on an 11-0 season-ending run through the Big East and NCAA Tournament to win the national championship, you might want to look back to remind yourself of Kemba’s blossoming brilliance as the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
In his first three NBA seasons, he played for three different head coaches who ran three different offensive systems with a revolving door of mediocre talent by his side.
After the 7-59 debacle his rookie year under Paul Silas and the better yet still woeful 21-61 finish in 2012-13 under Mike Dunlap, Walker and big man Al Jefferson spearheaded a resurgence in Charlotte with a surprising 43-39 finish and a playoff birth two years ago. Walker averaged 18 points, six assists and four rebounds that year, establishing himself as the heartbeat of the franchise.
His true value to the team, along with the ever-present combustibility to play like he did last night while scoring 31 points on 12 of 21 shooting and collecting three steals against the Knicks, is the frenetic, lightning-quick pace that he plays at which keeps opponents constantly on their heels.
He’s incessantly applying pressure on both ends of the floor. And his toughness, leadership and winning attitude are all assets in the ever fragile ecosystem of an NBA locker room.
He definitely needs to improve his overall field goal percentage and place more of an emphasis on using his quickness and speed to attack the basket, which will create more opportunities for his teammates as opposed to clogging up the offense while settling for jumpers.
There’s something brewing in Charlotte this year that’s worthy of paying attention to. It might not be the Linsanity that captivated the world's attention a few years back, but Jeremy Lin’s contributions off the bench will be much appreciated by the sophisticated fan who saw the team’s hopes implode with last year’s subtraction-by-addition-acquisition of Lance Stephenson.
Nicolas Batum is playing outstanding basketball, despite his dud last night in New York. In his previous four games, he had 33 points, six assists and five rebounds against Portland, 28 points and eight boards against Chicago, 24 points and five rebounds against the Knicks in Charlotte and 17 points, six rebounds, three assists and two blocks against Minnesota.
The Hornets’ bench production has also been exceptional. The subs are averaging close to 40 points per game, and they’re led by the emerging 23-year-old star, Jeremy Lamb. His play thus far has him in early-season consideration for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. He’s shooting 57% from the field and his overall stat line of 13 points and five rebounds per game does not fully capture what he adds to the mix.
Lamb's size, length, shooting accuracy and feel for the game are living up to the promise that he had coming out of college. And his perimeter defense early on has been special.
After starting 0-3, Charlotte has won five of their last eight games.
The team is poised for a breakout season, led by their floor general and leader Kemba Walker, whose fight and desire to win is much bigger than his stature suggests.
He’s been criticized over his brief career, but he walked into a horrible situation and was forced to be the team’s offensive creator as a passer and a scorer with very little help at his disposal.
But as the talent improves around him, with guys like Batum, Lin, Lamb, Jefferson, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and an effective bench, this will be the most weapons he’s had during his young career.
In order to take the next step, he’ll need to become an elite facilitator who can score in bunches solely when needed as opposed to being the team’s best offensive option.
He had a great homecoming last night. Look for him, and the Hornets, to make some more noise this season.