Kemba Walker Proving to be All-Star Worthy
Each season around this time, we begin to see lists discussing which players deserve to be an All-Star.
Now that the starters have been revealed for the upcoming game, debates will begin on who deserves to be named as a reserve player. Eventually, the conversation will shift to those players that were snubbed from the game.
Perhaps one of the biggest All-Star snubs last season was Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker. He had been quietly putting together a great season, but ultimately failed to earn the vote from the coaches around the league.
Walker finished last season averaging 17.3 points, 5.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals. He finished fourth among Eastern Conference point guards in scoring, eighth in assists, third in assist-to-turnover ratio and ninth in steals.
While fans and coaches failed to vote Walker into the All-Star game last season, Walker has proved this season that he can’t be ignored again.
He was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for his play last week after averaging 34.8 points per game, including a 52-point outing on Monday against the Utah Jazz and a 40-point performance against the Orlando Magic on Friday.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a teammate on a tear like that and I’ve played with some really good scorers,” teammate Marvin Williams said. “He’s just aggressive. He wants to win; he’ll do anything to win. If he feels like he has to keep scoring the ball, he’s going to do it.
“He’s making the right plays, though. He’s getting assists as well. He’s rebounding as well. He’s going to give you his all each and every night and I think that’s why he’s playing so well.”
Walker is in the midst of his best season to date. In his fifth year in the league, Walker is averaging a career-high 20.5 points per game, which ranks eighth in the East and third among point guards.
Perhaps his biggest improvement has come in the form of his shooting. He’s raised his field goal percentage from 39 percent last season to 43 percent this season, while his three-point shooting has increased from 30 percent to 37 percent.
“I would never thought that this would happen, but I’m playing pretty well,” Walker said. “I’m just playing off of my teammates, letting the game come to me. [I’m] just trying to make shots or get my teammates involved and trying to do it to the best of my ability.”
Players are often judged by how they use their time away from the court. The summer months are what defines players. This past summer, Walker worked extensively on his shooting and his pick-and-roll game. He’s added a Steve Nash-type of element to his game when it comes to his pick-and-roll play. He even spent a few days over the summer working with Nash to help refine some of his skills.
“Hard work pays off every time,” Walker said. “I don’t think there is nobody in this league who say they work harder than me. Maybe as hard, but not harder. It’s just showing. It’s showing.”
Given Walker’s great play as of late, it should come as no surprise that the Hornets posted a 3-1 record on the week. The team looked dead in the water against the Magic on Friday night. The Magic led the Hornets 94-79 at the end of the third quarter and looked to be fully in control of the game.
There was a point at the end of the third quarter in which Walker told head coach Steve Clifford that he didn’t want to leave the game. That ended up being the best thing to happen for Charlotte as Walker played every minute of the fourth quarter and overtime period and scored 17 of his 40 points down the stretch to lead the Hornets to a 120-116 win in overtime.
So, is this Walker proving to the rest of the league that he should be an All-Star?
“I’m just playing basketball,” Walker said. “[I’m] trying to win games and get to the playoffs. If I can make the All-Star game, that’s great. If not, who cares? I just want to win. I want to just keep getting better everyday. I want to make the playoffs, man. That’s the main goal.
“I want to win, man. I’m trying to do everything. I’m definitely a lot better, but I’m older. This is my fifth year. I’m starting to get a little bit more comfortable. I just want to keep it rolling.”
As it stands, Walker faces tough competition to earn a spot on the All-Star roster. Dwyane Wade and Kyle Lowry were voted in by the fans to start the game in the backcourt. After Lowry, only Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas averages more points per game than Walker (among point guards).
It seems likely that Jimmy Butler or DeMar DeRozan will be voted into the game by the coaches, leaving Walker’s chances of earning a spot pretty slim. It could be possible that Walker will again headline the snub list this season.
While Walker won’t openly admit he wants to be an All-Star, his teammates and coach believe he should be playing for the East in Toronto on February 14.
“No question [he should be an All-Star],” Williams said. “That’s not taking away from any other players out there in the Eastern Conference. I think he’s done his fair share, definitely.”
“I don’t to get to vote for him,” Clifford said. “You don’t get to vote for your own guys, but I certainly would.”
Walker’s goal of returning to the playoffs this season looks like it’s going to be a battle until the end. The Hornets enter tonight’s game at Sacramento with a 21-23 record, two games out of the last playoff spot in the East.
Prior to the start of last week, the Hornets had gone just 1-9 over their previous 10 games. Things could be beginning to look up as they’ve won three out of their last four games, but they begin a four-game West coast road trip tonight.
It’s clear that as long as Walker is playing, the Hornets will virtually always have a chance to compete. All-Star selection or not, the Hornets are experiencing success thanks to their most valuable player whether the rest of the league wants to admit it.
Ish Smith Happy to be Back in Philadelphia
Despite owning the worst record in the league, the Philadelphia 76ers have been a much-improved team over the past month. The improvement seems to be directly linked to the return of point guard Ish Smith.
Philadelphia re-acquired Smith on Christmas Eve from the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for two second-round picks. Prior to Smith returning to Philadelphia, the team had just one win on the season. They now have six wins with Smith back, and have gone 5-9 since his arrival. While the numbers suggest otherwise, Smith denies being the reason for Philadelphia’s turnaround.
“No, it’s not me,” Smith told Basketball Insiders. “I was so happy to be back with the guys and the team. I felt like the last 30 games, I built a relationship with the guys.
“I think more or less it’s just the camaraderie we have. We’re having fun playing basketball. It’s not me at all. Before I got here, [they were] playing really good basketball. So I don’t think it’s me. I just think as a team, we’re growing up.”
Smith won’t take credit for the Sixers’ improved play, but the stats show that the team has been better since he’s arrived.
During the first 31 games of the season, the 76ers scored 91.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranked dead-last in the league. In 14 games with Smith playing, the team has improved that number to 98.5 points per 100 possessions.
The defense has improved too, as the team is giving up 102.9 points per 100 possessions, which is 10th in the NBA since December 26.
Over the last month, the Sixers have posted a better record than the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn Nets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns.
“We’re just playing hard,” Smith said. “I think we’re growing up – knowing what are good shots and what are bad shots, knowing the defensive schemes, what Coach [Brett Brown] what really wants for us. Offensively, moving the ball [and] playing off of each other. I think just overall, we’re playing good basketball. We’re growing up.
“Like I said, this is a huge step for us, just kind of closing out these games down the stretch. I can name numerous games with the exception of two that if we would have locked the game down and closed it out the right way, we probably would have won.”
Smith’s story this season has been incredible considering how well he’s played. He began this season in training camp with the Washington Wizards. Then, the Wizards waived Smith on October 24, just three days before the start of the season.
Two days after being waived by Washington, Smith signed with New Orleans just one day before the Pelicans were set to begin the season against Golden State.
In his debut with the Pelicans, Smith was forced to play a big role due to a number of injuries. Smith delivered, contributing 17 points, nine assists and three steals in a game-high 38 minutes in a loss to the Golden State Warriors. The Pelicans would eventually get some healthy bodies back, effectively ending Smith’s tenure in New Orleans.
In 14 games with the Sixers, Smith is averaging a career-high 15.9 points, 8.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Smith’s 6.5 assists this season (between New Orleans and Philadelphia) currently rank 11th in the league, while his 8.1 assists per game with the Sixers rank second in the East.
“I think the biggest key is being ready and staying ready,” Smith said. “[It’s also about] having faith that your next turn is your right turn. Just keep pushing, keep pressing and keep working. When your number is called, be ready. Know when your number is called, you have to be ready and play good basketball.”
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