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Kemba Walker Doesn’t Care How Close You’re Guarding Him

In today’s pace-and-space NBA, competent defenders are more valuable than they’ve ever been, thanks to the unprecedented level of shooting and the sheer number of versatile players who double as unicorns. Ideally, a defender gets as physical as he can without fouling the shooter. And at a minimum, he should sprint toward the player with an outstretched arm, throwing off the shooter’s rhythm and concentration and potentially forcing a misfire.

But what if getting closer to the shooter doesn’t make any real difference?

That is the conundrum of guarding a Kemba Walker 3-pointer.

The Charlotte Hornets’ All-Star point guard, who is enjoying the best season of his career, is shooting 45 percent from the 3-point stripe when he’s left wide open, with more than six feet between him and the closest defender. Somewhat unbelievably, he’s also shooting an NBA-best 44 percent from 3 when he’s smothered, with less than two feet separating him and the closest defender, according to SportVU, which uses cameras to track movement on the court.

Those familiar with the first few seasons of Walker’s career might dismiss these numbers as an aberration — his output this year is a huge improvement from his 27 percent mark when tightly guarded the prior three years, and the six-year veteran was a below-average shooter from deep until last year.

But there are a handful of reasons to think the 26-year-old can continue hitting the closely guarded shots at a better-than-expected clip. For starters, he’s been working with Hornets assistant coach Bruce Kreutzer, who has made a few small changes that seem to have made a tremendous difference the past two seasons. Kreutzer had Walker adjust his jumper by using the balls of his feet for lift instead of his heels, which improves his accuracy, and moving his release point an inch or two to his right, which prevents Walker, a righty, from needing an extra split second to pull the ball over from his left side to shoot.

And the improvement from distance has prompted defenses to play Walker much differently in screen-and-roll scenarios. Teams used to duck underneath the screens set for him more than 20 percent of the time, according to Synergy Sports, daring the UConn product to shoot and hindering the Hornets’ spacing. Now, opponents know Walker is dangerous from outside, and they are fighting over the top of the screens more than ever in hopes of staying with him.

SEASON % OF TIME DEFENDER WENT UNDER THE SCREEN 3-POINT %
2011-12 21.7% 30.5%
2012-13 23.4 32.2
2013-14 12.4 33.3
2014-15 14.1 30.4
2015-16 14.3 37.1
2016-17 12.2 40.2
Kemba has gotten better from deep, even as defenses have tightened

Defenders often go under screens when they don’t think a shooter will make an outside shot. As Walker has gotten more accurate, they’ve had to guard him far more closely.

Source: NBA, Synergy Sports

But by hanging closer to Walker so he doesn’t get open looks, his opponents have inadvertently become a major part of the reason that Walker has shot so well when defenders are crowding him. Because Walker is so quick (and because he can run directly off the shoulder of his screener, which helps him shed his man), he can often set his feet and rise for a pull-up jumper before the defender has fully gotten back into the play.

I watched film of Walker’s most closely contested threes, and I discovered two things: 1. Almost all of the plays are like the one in the video above, in which a defender is trailing behind Walker after a pick is set for him and 2. because of that, even though opponents are quite close to Walker, they have no way of bothering his shot from behind without risking being called for a three-shot foul.

Some of this highlights the screen-setting value of Charlotte big man Cody Zeller,1 who ranks fourth in the NBA with 5.4 screen assists per game, per SportVU.

“This year, it’s a huge difference, just because I want his defender to go over the screen,” Zeller told Bleacher Report earlier in the season. “In other years, I had to make sure the defender didn’t get under it, you know, set it a couple steps lower.”

But a huge part of it is also Walker’s quick trigger following the screen. By taking the shot so soon after the pick, Walker is essentially boxing out his defender and preventing the opponent from getting a hand in his face. And that explains how he’s managed to shoot just as well with foes breathing down his neck as when he’s had plenty of space to launch a shot.

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Footnotes

  1. Zeller’s injuries have been backbreaking for the Hornets this season. Charlotte is beating opponents by nearly 9 points per 100 plays when he and Walker are both on the floor, but the Hornets get outscored by one point per 100 possessions when Walker is without Zeller, per NBA.com.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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