TrueHoop: Kemba Walker
- The Bobcats brought a large chunk of their regular-season roster to Las Vegas Summer League, and it's shown. James Herbert of Hardwood Paroxysm shared his thoughts on the new additions and what they might mean for Kemba Walker. Is Walker primed for a breakout season? As Herbert points out, there was no summer league prior to Walker's rookie season. He and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are making the most of their opportunity this year to develop a rapport. That chemistry and Walker's emergence as a leader will go a long way toward determining how this season goes for Charlotte.
- The word around Kings observers, both writers and fans alike, is how poorly Jimmer Fredette has played this summer. Over at Cowbell Kingdom, James Ham gets to the root of Fredette's problem: "Jimmer Fredette is too nice. He wants to fit in too badly. He doesn’t want to steal the spotlight, he just wants to be one of the guys and by doing so, he has lost the edge that made him great."
- Andrew McNeill recaps Cory Joseph's struggles Friday night, when Joseph turned the ball over 10 times, as well as how summer league as a whole went for the Spurs. Joseph's disappointment in his own play shows he's committed to getting better. That's been a common sentiment among young players who have struggled here in Las Vegas. Overall, the week was a success for both Joseph and the Spurs.
- When the Phoenix Suns signed Goran Dragic and drafted Kendall Marshall, there was talk about pairing the two in the backcourt. Regardless of that possibility, the Suns re-signed Shannon Brown to a two-year, $7 million deal to shore up their depth on the wing. Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns details how that deal fits into Phoenix's long-term cap situation. That story also includes a quote from Grant Hill indicating Hill would have liked to return to Phoenix. He, of course, ended up in Los Angeles, across the hallway in Staples Center from Steve Nash.
- The team that dines together garners gold medals together. Don't let the demonic look on Anthony Davis' face distract you from the real star of this picture -- Chris Paul's shirt. Even Russell Westbrook has to respect that sartorial selection.
- One of the scariest moments of summer league was Portland's Nolan Smith falling to the floor after a hard foul earlier in the week. Smith suffered a concussion and was taken off the court on a stretcher. He should be fine going forward; said Smith, "I’ll just keep playing with the same confidence and just being aggressive. That’s when I’m at my best. This injury isn’t going to slow me down."
- Greg Stiemsma is living the dream for which so many summer league participants are striving. The restricted free agent has agreed to terms with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the same team that offered him his first NBA contract way back on April 13, 2010.
- The curious case of the vanishing Terrico White and his re-emergence with the Los Angeles Clippers' squad this summer.
- Even the referees at summer league are looking to capture the memories of their week in Las Vegas.
- For my money, the most fascinating team in action has been the D-League Select team, which vanquished the Phoenix Suns on Friday night and held a 45-35 lead over the Minnesota Timberwolves at halftime Saturday evening before eventually losing 86-78. The Select players are playing with the massive chip on their shoulder that one would expect from those who see themselves as just as talented as the franchise-affiliated summer league invitees.
Charlotte has been held below 100 points in all 15 losses, tied for the fourth-longest such streak in NBA history. The Bobcats current win percentage is .107, lower than the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers (.110), who set the all-time record for losses (9-73).
The Bobcats aren’t a good offensive team struggling to defend or a good defensive team struggling to score. Instead, they are a team that both struggles to score and struggles to stop the other team from scoring.
Since the start of the 2001-02 season, only three teams have ranked in the bottom two in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. If the Bobcats maintain their current pace, they will be the fourth team on this list.
Through 28 games, they are being outscored by 14.4 points per game. That is on pace for the second-worst mark since the NBA-ABA merger.
Michael Jordan was named minority owner of the Bobcats on June 15, 2006. As part of that agreement, he was given full control of the basketball operations side of the team. His primary draft selections since taking control of the basketball department have been decidedly unsuccessful.
Of eight first-round picks since 2006, only two have become above-average NBA players by Player Efficiencty Rating, and both (Tobias Harris and Brandan Wright) were traded before playing a game for Charlotte. Just three of the picks – Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and D.J. Augustin – are still on the roster.
Augustin leads the team in PER at 16.5. That is the worst mark for a team-leading PER in the NBA. The closest competition is Roy Hibbert, who leads the Indiana Pacers with an 18.6 PER. Only three players on the Bobcats roster exceed the league-average PER of 15.
Michael Jordan was the best player on the best team in NBA history - the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that won 72 games. Jordan is now involved with a team that may end up as the worst team in NBA history.
The Bobcats are 3-25 through 28 games, on pace for the lowest single-season win percentage in NBA history. Their 3-25 record is the exact inverse of the 25-3 record the Bulls had through 28 games during the 1995-96 season.
Years ago, Isiah Thomas acquired Steve Francis to pair with Stephon Marbury. It was supposed to be a small but dynamic backcourt that provided a lot of firepower. Many people around the NBA scoffed at this decision because it just wasn’t a traditional type of move. It had incredible drawbacks despite the talent of the two players in question.
Two years ago, David Kahn drafted Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn with back-to-back picks, claiming that he thought the two could play together in the same backcourt. The move was probably just an insurance policy for Rubio’s difficult buyout and reluctance to come to Minnesota. And yet, it was spun as a way to change the conventional thinking around the league and try to play a more up-tempo style with two point guards on the court for extended minutes together.
This potential strategy was also met with harsh criticism and laughter. Although we had seen it many times on NBA courts before, playing two small players in the backcourt just doesn’t match up with the idea and historic values of size dominating the NBA. We’re always enamored with the big man ruling the paint. Also, teams just typically don’t win championships with this style.
That is until a few months ago.
The Dallas Mavericks “got away” with playing three point guard-sized players on the court at the same time. Their best lineups included a backcourt pairing of JJ Barea and Jason Terry paired together or Jason Kidd paired with Terry. It worked for two reasons.
First, those three players are very productive offensively. Kidd is now a deadly outside shooter while also adept at setting up his teammates, Terry has been one of the best pick-and-roll and fourth-quarter scorers the last couple seasons, and Barea is great at getting into the paint and causing havoc for the opposing defense. The second reason is they usually had a lot of length behind them. Playing trios of interior players like Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler together allowed their overall team length to cover their smaller teammates defensively.
Also, we can’t forget that Nowitzki was just impossibly good.
But the small backcourts worked. The Mavericks used ball movement and shooting to be a suffocating form of offense for the opposing team. They also switched up their defensive looks quite often and were the best team at playing zone for key stretches.
Well, undoubtedly, this strategy is going to be copied at some point, as are most title contending teams. Instead of trying to be ahead of the next curve in basketball strategy, struggling franchises can also just choose to bring in players to copy what’s already worked in the NBA. It’s unimaginative, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work.
Count the Charlotte Bobcats as one of those teams.
As you probably saw in First Cup this morning, Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer talked to Paul Silas about next season. Silas alluded to (without naming names) the idea of playing incumbent point guard D.J. Augustin and first-round pick Kemba Walker on the floor at the same time:
"I'm going to have two little guys out there who I really think can hopefully play together. But it's going to be hard for (either of) them to guard a 2-guard.
But they can play a zone ... out-front, I think.''
I’ve never been much of an Augustin fan in terms of being a starting point guard in the NBA. He had a pretty good year last season with 14.4 points, 6.1 assists, and 1.9 turnovers in 33.1 minutes per game. I just don’t know that his point-guard abilities are completely up to par with where you would want a full-time starter moving forward to be. However, as a scorer, he can be pretty deadly if surrounded by the right people.
The idea of playing him next to Walker while playing a zone is fairly intriguing. If Walker can be a legitimate starter in this league while giving a solid defensive effort, then playing him next to Augustin may be doable for extended stretches. I’d expect the Bobcats to toss out a lineup of Walker, Augustin, Corey Maggette, Tyrus Thomas and Bismack Biyombo when this happens.
The key to this lineup will be getting stellar defense from Thomas while playing alongside Biyombo, and having Maggette buy into something other than just worrying about his own scoring. Ideally, you’d like a much better shooter as the other wing or someone who has a lot of length and the ability to knock down open jumpers.
If Silas’ plan of running a lot more with his team next season is able to happen consistently, then two quick guards like Augustin and Walker could definitely wreak some havoc. Of course, all of this is a best-case scenario type of situation. Ideally, they’d have Gerald Wallace as one of these wing players instead of Maggette, and they would try to win a lot of ugly games in the 85-84 range.
The Mavericks winning with a small backcourt surrounding their star and one of the best defensive systems in the NBA may not just be a single season perfect storm. We may see teams trend this way, rather than trying to go out and compile their own version of the Big Three.
Kemba Walker is, by all accounts, a winner.
He’s won a college basketball national championship, almost single-handedly leading an inexperienced University of Connecticut team, unranked in the preseason, on an improbable run of 11 straight postseason wins to cap off the 2010-11 season. He’s won games, most notably with a step-back dagger against Pittsburgh that’s sure to be replayed each year around tourney time. He’s won awards, taking home most outstanding player trophies at the NCAA and Big East tournaments as well as earning an All-American nod and a spot on a slew of other honorary postseason lists.
And accordingly, he’s won over draft experts and decision-makers, as evidenced by his pre-draft status as a near-lock to land in the 2011 lottery.
Even current NBA players are buying in. In ESPN The Magazine’s annual player-picked mock draft, the Jazz’s Al Jefferson selected Walker No. 3 overall. Why? "Kemba is a winner and a fierce competitor," he said.
Who wouldn’t want a winner? Especially if you’re representing a lottery team, for whom, more often than not, winning is at a premium. Bag yourself a player with a winning attitude, the thinking goes, and that mindset might rub off on the rest of the locker room.
But how far up the draft board will that reputation take you?
'He's just a winner'
More than any other prospect in this draft, Walker is defined by his team’s on-court success in 2010-11. What separates him from the likes of Kyrie Irving and Brandon Knight -- raw, high-upside point guards whose talent far outweighs their production -- are his immeasurable intangibles.
He’s a leader. He’s tough. He’s got heart.
He has the hoops version of je ne sais quoi: a certain something. And despite all the basketball skills stacked up on his draft résumé, you keep coming back to the same phrase when trying to answer why, exactly, he has been such a success: He's just a winner.
But some of the biggest doubts surrounding Walker’s ability to succeed at the next level stem from those same qualities.
You see his inefficient shooting numbers, and it’s easy to label him as a player whose college-crafted reputation might disguise some ugly truths. And that’s where the second-guessing begins. Sure, Walker can command a huddle, but with college 3-point shooting of just 33 percent in 2010-11, can he make teams pay for going under the screen? And yeah, he can hit the big shots, but with that ho-hum 28 assist rate, Walker doesn’t strike you as a point guard who truly excels at setting up others.
In the Final Four, the shining moment of his final college season, Walker was a mere 11-for-34 from the field and 1-for-9 from 3-point range, with almost as many turnovers (six) as assists (seven).
But as ESPN draft guru Chad Ford wrote shortly after the Huskies hoisted their third national title, “Walker proved once again that he's a winner.”
Walker might be a “winner.” But how much does “winning” really matter in the NBA draft?
Where winning fits in
Winning is the ultimate team goal, but draft prospects are rated almost entirely on individual talent. Players such as Enes Kanter and Bismack Biyombo, with barely one or two meaningful games under their belts, can be pegged as lottery picks. And with the No. 1 pick in 2004, the Orlando Magic passed over former UConn star Emeka Okafor, then the NCAA player of the year, also coming off a national title season, for Dwight Howard, a high school player with heaps of upside but nary a college victory. ... A move that has worked out OK, to say the least.
And yet, while potential almost always rules, sometimes a prospect’s team success can at least influence draft-day decisions. In 2009, for example, Tyler Hansbrough -- like Walker, a household name fresh off a national championship -- was selected 13th overall by the Pacers, ahead of high-upside picks Jrue Holiday, Earl Clark and Indiana’s current point guard, Darren Collison. Although strong and physical, Hansbrough was only an OK athlete with a low ceiling. But after four years as the darling of college basketball, he carried a reputation as someone you could count on, no matter what, to get a win. (He’s nicknamed “Psycho T,” for crying out loud.) And indeed, he’s become that same kind of player in the NBA.
The physical element
But unlike Hansbrough, Walker has the apparent physical tools to compete head to head with the other athletes in this year’s class.
Despite his diminutive stature -- when he measured 6-foot-1 in shoes, it was hailed as a major victory -- Walker had one of the best maximum verts (39.5 inches) and standing verts (32) of any player run through the ringer at May’s draft combine in Chicago. And his 3.16-second three-quarter-court sprint wasn’t too shabby, either.
Better yet, just watch Walker weave his way through a defense or kick into top gear in a flash. Rather than relying on perfectly executed sets, the Huskies thrived amid chaos, instead gathering all the speed, size and raw talent coach Jim Calhoun could fit on the court and whipping them at opponents. And Walker was often the projectile, charging at the heart of the defense, kamikaze style.
It’s that attacking, take-no-prisoners style that allowed him to rack up the fourth-highest scoring average (23.5 points per game) in the NCAA last season. But with few alternative options on offense, UConn’s reliance on him doing so also turned the junior into one of the game’s biggest ball hogs. According to college stat maven Ken Pomeroy’s calculator, Walker used 31.4 percent of the Huskies’ possessions, 20th most in the nation, and took 33 percent of their shots, 26th most.
As Calhoun told the Hartford Courant this week, "The decision-making with us was simple. [Tell Walker to] get the ball, go as far as you can, as long as you can, and make a play."
Making plays is what Kemba does and what has led him to this point, right on the doorstep of a professional career. And yet, when evaluating him objectively, there is still the lingering question that the skill set that made him so special in college might not be what’s necessary at the next level. After all, he might have made plays at key moments, but that 54.3 true shooting percentage doesn’t bode well for some of the other times.
Asking the right questions
But perhaps we’re not asking the right question. With so many variables to consider in a process that ultimately serves as a well-researched crap shoot, a large part of whether a prospect booms or busts comes down to plain old desire. Walker might be a winner now, but, when faced with a new standard of excellence, a new lifestyle, etc., will he still want to win?
In the opening panel of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March, Malcolm Gladwell moderated a discussion centered around psychologist Anders Ericsson’s “10,000-Hour Rule.“ In his book “Outliers,” Gladwell wrote that greatness is achieved through 10,000 hours of practice. For example, the Beatles played live in Hamburg, Germany, more than 1,200 times in the early 1960s, amassing more than 10,000 hours of performing, before returning to England. “It was the making of them,” Gladwell writes.
For this discussion, the panel sought to determine how the 10,000-Hour Rule relates to the modern athlete and the idea of the “natural” athlete. Eventually, the talk turned to players with prodigious talents that never panned out. Jeff Van Gundy nominated Stromile Swift, a bouncy 6-foot-10 forward beaming with athleticism. But Swift, the No. 2 overall pick in 2000, “didn’t love [basketball] as much as you would’ve hoped,” Van Gundy said.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey pointed to Marcus Banks, a point guard “with speed, built like a running back” ... but whose answer to “What do you really want to do with your life?” was that he would want to be a male fashion model.
Desire is still the great unknown of the draft -- of any sport. We can look at the stats, analyze the games tapes and do all the research, but for the most part, one’s response to success is often unpredictable. That’s true even for Walker, one of the best-known collegiate players in the country.
But at the very least, he has an encouraging history. When he was a pass-first point guard coming out of Rice High School (N.Y.), some wondered whether Walker would ever develop the necessary scoring skills. But after becoming an energy scorer off the bench in his freshman year at UConn and taking another major leap this past summer to become “the man” on a roster that at times appeared nearly barren, he’s progressed to the point where we question his ability to be a pass-first point guard.
Now he’ll need to make a whole new set of adjustments to have similar success in the NBA.
For Walker, this battle will be much harder to win.
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
I can't remember an April when the upcoming draft pool was less distinguishable than the Class of 2009. This much I know: Blake Griffin is a beast and Ricky Rubio is the Catalan Pete Maravich, though he may not even declare for the draft. After that, I've fallen in and out of love this winter with everyone from Greg Monroe and Stephen Curry to Earl Clark and Jordan Hill. Each prospect -- even the ones projected as Top 5 picks -- offers as many red flags as refined skills. Worst of all, we have only 120 minutes of basketball and a handful of players left to make sense of it all.
To help me sort it out, I emailed the oracle, Jonathan Givony of Draft Express. I asked Givony to share with TrueHoop the five guys he'll be watching most closely in Detroit. Here is Givony's comprehensive guide to the weekend:
Hasheem Thabeet, 7-3, Junior, Center, UConn
Thabeet is the top NBA draft prospect at the Final Four, and will be very heavily scrutinized due to his somewhat underwhelming NCAA tournament showing thus far (Chattanooga aside). When you're 7-3, have an NBA body, a freakish wingspan and run the floor like a deer, people tend to expect a lot out of you, as Thabeet seems to be slowly figuring out. Defensively, Thabeet will be asked to protect the rim and make his presence felt on the glass, as he usually does. Offensively, it would be nice to see him try and ask for the ball once in a while, as he's been extremely bashful in many of UConn's key games this season, seemingly afraid of exposing his poor hands and lack of balance. Thabeet has been projected by many NBA executives we've spoken with as a likely top-5 pick and potentially the second player off the board after Blake Griffin, so a strong showing is definitely in order.
Kemba Walker, 6-1, Freshman, Point Guard, UConn
If you're looking for an immediate NBA guard prospect to watch in the Michigan State-UConn game, by all means focus on sharp-shooting A.J. Price. But if it's the best all-around talent you're after, then freshman Kemba Walker is clearly your man. It's been too long since the 'next great point guard' has come out of New York. One who brings not only the moxie, ball-handling skills and clutch play that 'the City's' guards are known for, but also is actually the kind of player and person that teammates would like to play with. Walker is the best of both worlds in that regard, and is coming off an incredibly strong showing in the Elite Eight, carving up Missouri to the tune of 23 points and 5 assists. On paper, he's probably "too small” and "too streaky” a shooter to pass the initial eye test, but once he's done padding his resume and legacy at UConn, he's not going to have nearly as many doubters.
Ty Lawson, 6-0, Junior, Point Guard, North Carolina
If we had to choose the MVP of the NCAA Tournament thus far, it would clearly be Ty Lawson. Last June, after being projected as a late-first round pick, Lawson decided to return for his junior season. Now he's getting close to solidifying himself as a lottery pick, something this upcoming weekend can surely help with. Lawson has been playing on a bad toe, but he's been responsible for a number of incredible halves in this tournament to help sway the tide for the Heels, including 21 points in the second half against LSU, 17 points in the first half against Gonzaga. Now it's time for Lawson to go up against a physical, pesky and extremely aggressive Villanova backcourt that has been outstanding over the past two weeks, and prove his mettle as the best point guard in college basketball. Is he up to the task?
Kalin Lucas, 6-0, Sophomore, Point Guard, Michigan State
While there is no question that Michigan State's place in the Final Four was secured through a total team effort, the one individual that can be singled out as being a catalyst would have to be their star point guard Kalin Lucas. He was incredibly clutch in the Sweet 16 against Kansas, and has been a very steady distributor and prolific shot-creator all season for Tom Izzo. Still very much flying underneath the radar on the national level, and subsequently as a NBA draft prospect, despite being named Big Ten player of the year, Lucas is likely a year away from blowing up as a junior and truly becoming a household name. If he can have a big showing against UConn, that recognition might come a bit early, although there will always be question marks about his lack of size.
Jay Wright, 47 years old, Head Coach, Villanova
On a team full of marginal pros, the one name from Villanova that NBA fans should be aware of is actually that of their head coach, Jay Wright. Watch the difference in his offense this weekend-chock full of NBA friendly isolation plays, heavily focused on outstanding spacing-compared with that of Michigan State, UConn or North Carolina, and notice the difference. His team doesn't shoot particularly well, and they aren't very big, long or athletic. They lack a true point guard, a real center, any kind of depth at all in the frontcourt, and may not have even a single future NBA player on their roster.
So what are they even doing on this stage?
The answer to that is their head coach: Jay Wright. When NBA GMs go to scout the Final Four this weekend, they'll obviously be taking notes on their star players, Dante Cunningham and Scottie Reynolds. But they should also be keeping tabs on the man running the show from Villanova's bench.
Wright looks like the most likely head coach in the NCAA right now to be able to successfully make the transition to coaching in the NBA. Even though his team runs a traditional 4-out 1-in motion offense, he gives his players an unbelievable amount of freedom to go out and make plays on their own if they feel like they have an advantage. Even if they aren't the most talented group of players, Wright has made them into an extremely disciplined, unselfish bunch who are about as well-prepared a team as you'll find.
Everyone who has been around Wright mentions his charisma and ability to build and maintain relationships as the key to his success. Even if he obviously looks the part, he's much more than just a smooth talker. He knows how to manage his players and get the absolute most out of them, often by making quick changes on the fly, and is not a control freak, an ego-maniac or a disciplinarian, like many other failed college-to-pro experiments. When he asks his team to go out and spit blood in order to get him stops on the defensive end-a huge key to their success-- they do it, because they have a tremendous amount of respect for him. Would NBA players respect his authority in a similar way? There's only one way to figure that out.