Replacement All-Star? Why That Doesn't (and Shouldn't) Matter to Kemba Walker
By Sam Perley
At some point within the last couple of years, Kemba Walker's proximity to the best players the NBA has to offer became less and less of an enjoyable surprise and more of a routine expectation.
The latest such example took place on Thursday, Feb. 8 when Walker was named to his second-straight NBA All-Star Game in place of injured New York Knicks center, Kristaps Porzingis. Walker is just the fourth Charlotte player to reach the league's midseason showcase event multiple times and the first to do so in consecutive seasons since Glen Rice (1996-98).
The selection of the seventh-year veteran for this year's All-Star Game was hardly conventional. Walker was in fact the third replacement chosen from the Eastern Conference after Detroit's Andre Drummond and Miami's Goran Dragic, who are filling in because of injuries to Washington's John Wall and Cleveland's Kevin Love, respectively.
"Last year, I made the All-Star first selection and this year, I'm in because somebody got hurt. It doesn't take away anything, but that's kind of the only difference," Walker said. "I'm still excited. It's still a really, really surreal feeling."
The All-Star Game has been tweaked a bit this season in an attempt by the NBA to increase the overall competition and intensity level. Instead of the traditional East-versus-West format, Steph Curry and LeBron James were chosen as Team Captains to handpick the squads.
Walker will be joining Team LeBron, which will be led by Toronto Raptors Head Coach, Dwane Casey.
"He deservedly made the All-Star team, which I thought was the best thing, the right thing because he is an All-Star in our league," said Casey on Feb. 11 with regards to Walker. "One of the hardest guys individually to guard one-on-one, just with the speed and quickness and his ability to shoot the three off the dribble. He's one of the most difficult, most dynamic point guards in our league from that standpoint."
It's no secret that Walker's All-Star Game candidacy this season was hampered by the team's losing record. Currently, the Hornets are one of just two teams represented at the event who are not in playoff position at the moment. That should not delegitimize the Charlotte point guard's qualifications by any means though.
Walker enters the All-Star Break ranked eighth overall in the Eastern Conference in scoring (22.9 points per game), and sixth overall amongst players at his position, which is arguably the deepest from a talent standpoint in the NBA. He also sits seventh in the league in total three-point field goals made (158) and 11th in total free throws made (265). His four 40-point games this season are already a career high and tied for the third-highest total in the NBA.
Some people may argue Walker's status as a two-time All-Star (at least at the moment) comes with an asterisk since he technically wasn't picked initially. Well, you could make a case that being an All-Star is largely about consistency and reliability. Having missed only a pair of games and failing to score in double figures just twice in 55 appearances this season, Walker clearly possesses both.
Over the past six weeks in particular, Walker has taken his game to another level, posting averages of 25.0 points (42.5 percent from three-point range), 3.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.4 steals in 22 outings. He recently tallied a franchise-record nine three-pointers in a road win over Atlanta on Jan. 31 and broke the team's career record for long distance makes four days later in Phoenix.
"He has such a routine," said Hornets Head Coach Steve Clifford. "Every shootaround day is the same. Every practice day is the same. I think guys that are like that, they play better as the year goes on and he gives himself a good chance to do that."
Walker's remarkable offensive skills often times overshadow his defensive production, which Clifford believes is some of the finest of his career right now.
"I think this may be his best defensive year. [He's] very locked into his matchups, his team defense has been very good," he stated after Walker's season-high-tying four-steal performance in Orlando on Feb. 14.
Because of his smaller, 6-1 stature, Walker is inevitably going to have some challenges on defense, although much of that is overcome by his ability to score on the other end. Walker's defensive rating (average points allowed per 100 possessions when he's on the court) is down to 104.6 this season, compared to a mark of 105.4 in 2016-17. His net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) of 3.9 is currently the second highest of his career as well.
While Walker's trip to the All-Star Game last season in New Orleans (which included a third-place finish in the Three-Point Contest) was largely about engulfing himself in the full experience, it seems this year's journey to Los Angeles will be slightly more toned down.
"Just trying to enjoy myself and get some time to relax. It really is a celebration of our game, the NBA, and I am just going to try to enjoy myself," he said. "I'm just going to rest up really. When I'm not doing something, I'm just going to stay in my room as much as possible."
The physical and mental recharge that the NBA All-Star Break provides will be much needed for Walker and the rest of the Hornets, who have struggled with consistent, balanced play for much of the season. For this weekend though, Walker is deservedly right where he belongs amongst the greatest players in the league.