As Kemba Walker hoisted 3-pointers before his pre-draft workout with the Charlotte Bobcats, he turned to Stephen Silas, then a Bobcats assistant, with a lament: “Man, this line is far,” Walker said of the NBA arc, according to both men.
Walker did not shine in shooting drills that day. “That jumper,” Silas says, “was crooked.”
The Bobcats (now called the Hornets) took him anyway, banking on his history of winning and a personality that drew others to him. “He had that ‘It’ factor,” says Rich Cho, Charlotte’s GM from 2011 to 2018.
As a rookie on a ghoulish 7-59 team — perhaps the worst in NBA history — Walker shot 37 percent overall, 30 percent from deep, and just 50 percent at the rim. After the season, Silas handed him a list of things to work on. The top three items were the same: shooting, shooting, shooting.
And then … nothing. Over his first four seasons, Walker shot a combined 31.8 percent on 3s. Defenders skittered under every pick, daring Walker and bottling his liquid driving game.
“All of a sudden, he couldn’t go by people anymore,” says Jim Calhoun, who coached Walker to a national title at UConn.
Flash forward three-plus calendar years, and Walker is one of the league’s most dangerous perimeter scorers. Only James Harden has attempted more pull-up 3s. No one has canned more tightly contested 3s, per tracking data. Walker is fifth in scoring, and No. 1 in ESPN’s offensive real plus-minus. He barely needs a foot of airspace to snap into his refined shooting motion, and launch fire.
“He and Dame [Lillard] are the closest things to Stephen Curry,” says James Borrego, Charlotte’s coach. It might be the single most remarkable transformation of a jump shot in the history of the sport. Even Jason Kidd, the archetypal point guard who learned to shoot, never dreamed of taking, and making, the high-wire bombs Walker squeezes off within a space — between two defenders — as tight as a high-school locker.
Walker didn’t see it coming, either. “I never saw myself playing at this level, and shooting the ball like this,” he says during a late November sit-down. “I guess you could say I’m surprised.”
Those who survived that seven-win season are, too. “Never did I think he would be doing what he’s doing now,” Silas says. “Absolutely no way.”
At least two Charlotte season-ticket holders can claim clairvoyance. Mike and Elizabeth Peeler, a semi-retired couple who have owned season tickets for 29 seasons, first met Walker during the 2011-12 season, when he dropped off tickets at their home as part of a team promotion. Walker stayed for 45 minutes. The Peelers felt a connection.
Before a home game that season, Mike Peeler summoned the courage to ask Walker if he might visit again. Walker agreed, and gave Peeler his number.
He has come to the Peelers for dinner at least once per season since, bringing various relatives and staying for hours. The Peelers found out Walker enjoyed the board game “Trouble” as a kid, and bought it so they could play. Walker asked if they might bake him their brownies before every home game; Elizabeth now has an arrangement with team security to smuggle in the brownies, and deliver them to Walker.
During one pregame chat late in Walker’s rookie season, Mike Peeler predicted Walker would be an All-Star one day. “He looked at me like I had two heads,” Peeler says.
Now Walker looks like a lock to make his third consecutive All-Star team. He poured in 103 points over back-to-back games earlier this month. He is an early favorite for an All-NBA selection that would make him eligible for the richest contract in the sport. He might be more than an All-Star. He might be a superstar.
“I don’t think of myself that way,” he says. “It’s strange.”
Struggling amid a 7-59 season will lend that sort of perspective. “There were times I didn’t know if I even belonged in the NBA,” Walker says. “Everyone at this level is so good — bigger, stronger, faster. There were so many guys who could do what I do. I just didn’t know.”
He couldn’t handle the sheer volume of losses. As Charlotte players trudged into the home locker room after one of those 59 losses, they heard someone screaming. “We can’t keep f—ing losing,” the man shouted, according to several players. “We’ve got to be better than this! I’m tired of this losing s—!”
It was Walker. He was weeping. Veterans were stunned. “Some guys were like, ‘Oh well, we lost another game, what are we doing tonight?'” Gerald Henderson recalls. “And Kemba’s in tears. It was like, ‘Damn, this s— really matters to him. This cat cares.'”
“I felt for him,” says former teammate Matt Carroll, now a Hornets broadcaster. “That year was hard enough to make you think, ‘Do I really want to keep doing this?'”
Bonding with teammates became one coping mechanism. Henderson and Walker were fast friends, and shopping buddies. Last week, when the Hornets were in Oklahoma City, Walker texted Henderson — currently rehabbing from an Achilles tear he suffered a few months ago, and hasn’t disclosed until now — to reminisce about the time they stayed so late in an Oklahoma City mall, they found themselves locked inside after closing. (A maintenance worker let them out around midnight.)
Silas distracted Walker from the losing by setting short-term goals: Forget the 12-game losing streak. Hit half your 3s tonight.
Even so, the Bobcats and Walker stagnated in Year 2 together. At the end of that season, Walker called his agent, Jeff Schwartz, and told him he needed help, Schwartz says. Schwartz mentioned that another of his clients, Al Jefferson, was about to hit free agency. Walker and Jefferson eventually met up, and Walker pitched the possibility of making the playoffs in Charlotte.
“I thought it was a joke at first,” says Jefferson, who returned from China a few days ago after a brief stint playing there. “Playoffs? Come on.”
Jefferson joined, and the Bobcats doubled their win total before the Miami Heat swept them in the first round.
And yet: Walker’s shooting numbers got worse. He was up for an extension that fall. Schwartz wanted $12 million per season. Charlotte’s offer topped out at $10 million. As the Oct. 31 deadline approached, Walker pushed Schwartz to accept Charlotte’s offer. If Schwartz wouldn’t, Walker threatened to call the team and do it himself, according to both. (Charlotte ponied up $12 million in the end.)
The deal looked like an overpay when Walker’s shooting dipped again in 2014-15. Charlotte sunk to 33-49 and missed the playoffs.
The numbers didn’t show it yet, but Walker’s game and mental approach were changing. In the summer of 2014, Steve Clifford, then Charlotte’s head coach, hired Steve Hetzel, one of three assistants who would help mold Walker into a star. Hetzel drilled Walker on what they called his “pick-and-roll setup game” — the move before the move. Instead of dribbling straight into screens, Walker would unleash fakes and twitches to bluff defenders into leaning the wrong way before impact.
He might fake away from a pick, and then dart back toward it:
When defenses tried to pin him along the sidelines, Hetzel taught Walker to take one hard dribble toward the middle. His defender would lurch that way, opening a runway in the opposite direction. If opponents wanted Walker going toward the sideline, he would trick them into giving him a head start.
“He could take anything I showed him on film and immediately transfer it into games,” says Hetzel, now working under Clifford in Orlando. “It was uncanny.”
It was also familiar. Before the 2011 draft, Walker trained with Jay Hernandez, a player development guru with an arsenal of strange drills. He had Walker dribble the ball underneath hurdles that stood just a foot off the ground — barely enough room for a ball. He wanted Walker to pitter-pat the ball at angles and heights too low for most defenders to reach. He would turn Walker’s biggest weakness — his height — into an advantage. (Jefferson says he used to tease Walker about being so short, he needed a car seat.)
When big men jumped out to corral Walker in the pick-and-roll, Hernandez showed him how to dribble into their legs. They would either recoil, revealing a driving lane, or foul him. Walker didn’t need to worry about knee-to-knee contact.
“I’m so small, their legs are usually at my shoulders,” he says.
Walker was naturally shifty — a wizard contorting through tight corridors, and splitting traps. Hernandez thought he could be shiftier. As Walker drove, Hernandez stood in his way behind a tackling dummy. He would thrust the dummy at Walker, then in another direction, then back in Walker’s face — forcing Walker to make quick zig-zags. Sometimes, he’d jump out from behind the dummy as a second defender. (Borrego hired Hernandez onto the Charlotte staff last summer.)
Partnering with Hetzel in that 2014-15 season tapped into Walker’s time with Hernandez. But Hetzel noticed Walker didn’t always work with enthusiasm. “He could be moody,” says Patrick Ewing, an assistant in Charlotte for four seasons. “Moody’s pretty fair,” Walker says. When Walker was unhappy, or tired from traveling, everyone noticed.
After a season together, Hetzel felt comfortable nudging Walker about his approach to practice. “‘Whether you want to accept the role of leader or not, they follow you,'” Hetzel told him in the summer of 2015. “‘What would it hurt to do everything in practice better than anyone else?'”
They developed a motto: “Less bad days.”
“By the time I left, there was rarely a bad day,” Hetzel says. “He became our best practice player.” Walker sat front row at film sessions. He became close with Hetzel’s family.
“He was always a good worker,” Silas says, “but he didn’t become a great worker until after Coach Clifford came.”
Walker is one of those rare ebullient personalities who can lift everyone around him when he is in a good mood. “People flock to him,” Hetzel says. “He’s vibrant. People want to be happy when he’s happy.”
It reminded Silas, an assistant with the Warriors from 2006 to 2010, of another point guard. “Steph and Kemba are similar in the effect they can have on people,” Silas says. When Clifford’s health issues forced Silas to act as Charlotte’s interim head coach last season, Walker went out of his way to compliment him — both privately and in front of the team. “He didn’t have to do that,” Silas says.
Teammates grew to love him. When Michael Kidd-Gilchrist signed his extension in 2015, Walker was the first person he thanked. “Not my mother, not my sister, not my brother,” he says. “It was Kemba. He inspired me.”
Spreading good vibes wouldn’t mean much without a reliable jumper. In the summer of 2015, the Hornets hired Bruce Kreutzer as shooting coach. He advised Walker to shift his release point a little to the right. He noticed Walker shot from his heels. He wanted Walker to move on the balls of his feet and his toes, and to release his shot almost while leaning forward. It would be faster, more repeatable.
Walker acquiesced over a summer and fall of monotonous drills. He liked the routine of it, but the results were not coming. After struggling in the preseason of 2015, he approached Hetzel about going back to his old form. “I couldn’t get it,” Walker says. “I was frustrated. I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Hetzel did not feel it was his place to tell Walker what to do. He suggested Walker speak to Clifford. He was sending Walker to the principal’s office.
Clifford was taken aback. He knew Walker to be a grinder. In the summer of 2013, fresh onto the job, Clifford invited Walker to scrimmage in the evenings with Charlotte’s summer league team. There was no point showing up for morning sessions, Clifford told him; the team would only do drills then. “He said, ‘No, I’m doing everything, I want to see what your practices are like,'” Clifford recalls.
Clifford told Walker he could revert to his old shot if he wanted. “You’ll shoot 32 percent from 3 forever and be a middle of the pack point guard,” Clifford recalls telling him. (Others have heard harsher versions. “Cliff snapped him right back into it,” Hetzel says, laughing.)
Walker stuck with it. A month into the 2015-16 season, he felt things turning. He hit 37 percent from deep, and has been above 38 percent every season since. With defenders chasing Walker over screens, it was easier to slice into the lane — and show off his improved finishing.
Walker has mastered a deep bag of crazy layups he lofts over and around behemoth defenders. One of the league’s fastest guards is among the most adept at slowing down. When Walker encounters a big man near the rim, he’ll hit the brakes and burrow into the defender’s stomach. He’ll then lean back, and lob a floater over that defender’s hand as the poor guy falls out of bounds — a prisoner of momentum.
For all his derring-do, Walker rarely turns the ball over.
As Walker improved in 2015-16, he imprinted his personality on the team. He refused to come out for the entire second half of one comeback overtime win in Orlando, Clifford says. He barked at teammates in huddles and practices. “He will jump his teammates,” Borrego says.
“He gets on me a lot,” Miles Bridges says.
They respond, because it is never selfish. They see what Walker demands of himself. “He criticizes himself even harder,” Jefferson says. They know he just wants to win. (He did not celebrate scoring 60 points in a loss to Philadelphia, or ask for the game ball. “He was pissed,” Kidd-Gilchrist says, “because we lost.”) He shouts encouragement, never insults.
“He’s yelling for his teammates,” Hetzel says. “Not at them.”
It all came together the next season, when Walker averaged 23 points and made his first All-Star team. With the Hornets on the road, Hetzel FaceTimed with his wife, Anne, as TNT revealed the All-Star reserves so they would get the news — good or bad — together. When Walker’s name came up, Anne began crying, Hetzel says.
The work has not stopped. Walker still thinks about his feet and toes on every jumper, he says. Staffers who work late sometimes notice the lights of the practice court flicking on, and peek out to find Walker putting up shots.
He has made another leap, right in time for free agency. If he makes an All-NBA team, Walker will be eligible for a designated player deal from Charlotte starting at 35 percent of next season’s salary cap — a total of about $220 million over five seasons. Either way, the Hornets can still offer the normal max at 30 percent of the cap: five years, $189 million. Rival teams can offer only four seasons.
Walker needs help again. Charlotte turned four top-nine picks into Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo and Frank Kaminsky. A fifth, Noah Vonleh, became Nicolas Batum, now averaging nine points per game. Walker has been overburdened, especially in the clutch.
Walker is 22-of-80 since the start of last season in the last three minutes when the score is within three points, per NBA.com. No other Hornet has attempted even 20 such shots over that span. Borrego is already giving Walker some practice days off days to preserve his body.
The Hornets do not have another top-50 player. Maxing out Walker would cramp their maneuverability in finding one. Walker will be 29 this summer. He’s short — a defensive liability in the wrong postseason matchup. Paying a top-20 player into his 30s as if he were a top-eight player can hamstring a franchise for years. Charlotte can’t tank with Walker on the roster. They might not be able to contend for anything with him on a max deal.
Ironically, that is why Charlotte might throw the full boat at him: Without Walker, what do they have? Without Walker, there is no choice but to tank. Charlotte tanked Walker’s rookie season. It didn’t work. Small markets rarely have the stomach to tank two and three seasons, at least on purpose.
Charlotte could leverage that fifth-year carrot into a minor compromise: a flat five-year, $163 million deal that sticks at Walker’s 2019-20 max, or some partial guarantee in Year 5.
It’s possible Walker has come to mean too much to the franchise to let him walk — too much to fans like the Peelers. No one within the organization thinks Walker is as good as Curry. They do wonder if he carries the same level of importance, and cultural influence.
Walker feels the same connection. “These guys believed in me,” he says. “I couldn’t care less about big markets. That’s not who I am. I want to make this place big. I want to be in the playoffs every year. I want to make Charlotte pop.”