Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Walker making case as Top 5 point guard

Hornets All-Star scored combined 103 points in back-to-back games

Kemba Walker doesn’t have the name recognition of some of the other All-Star point guards around the NBA.

His name doesn’t pop up in those casual conversations about the best players at what many believe to be the deepest position in the league.

But among his peers and those who have played against the Charlotte Hornets’ pint-sized playmaker and star, the respect has always been there.

Just check the reaction of Boston’s Kyrie Irving after Walker shredded the Celtics for 43 points (on 14-for-25 shooting, including a wicked 7-for-13 performance from deep) in just 39 minutes in a 117-112 Hornets win Monday.

And that came two days after Walker smoked the Philadelphia 76ers for a career-high 60 points (on 21-for-34 shooting and 6-for-14 from distance) in a 122-119 overtime loss.

Former Celtics great and future Hall of Fame Paul Pierce, now an analyst for ESPN, claims Walker is one of the top five point guards in the league right now. That’s high praise considering the quality depth at the position around the league.

Walker is making his case with his play, both as a scorer and playmaker for a Hornets team that has been a pleasant surprise in a wide-open Eastern Conference playoff chase. He’s averaging career highs in points (28.8) and assists (6.4) and shouldering a huge load as the face of the franchise in Charlotte.

And his timing couldn’t be better. The eyes of the basketball world will be on “his city” in February for All-Star 2019. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career in July.

Walker, one of five point guards in the top 10 of this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, isn’t wasting a moment.

With everyone waiting to see what he’d do next after scoring 103 points in two games — he was the league’s leading scorer heading into that game — Walker flipped the script with a season-high 11 assists in Wednesday’s win over the Indiana Pacers.

“About time he decided to start passing the ball,” first-year Hornets coach James Borrego joked to reporters after his team spread the scoring wealth and crushed the Pacers with six different players scoring in double digits.

It all starts with Walker, whose impact for and importance to the Hornets, is absolutely no joke.

“Teams will have to decide how they want to play us with Kemba,” Borrego said. “But no matter what they do, I trust our guys are getting better and understanding spacing.”

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The top five this week in the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 26.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.3 blocks

Giannis made sure the Bucks secured the season split with Portland with one of his best efforts of the season. He worked the Trail Blazers for 33 points (on 13-for-20 shooting), 16 rebounds, nine assists and three steals in Wednesday’s 43-point thumping at Fiserv Forum. It was Antetokounmpo’s second game this season of at least 30 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. Just as impressive as the Greek Freak’s monstrous start to this season is the Bucks’ ledger. Winners of three straight games, they are a season-high nine games above .500 and off to the franchise’s best start since the 1985-86 season. So much of what the Bucks are doing this season is built around Antetokounmpo’s ability to dominate on both ends of the floor. He’s the near perfect building block for a Mike Budenholzer offense, which relies heavily on quality 3-point shooting and floor spacing around his catalyst. If it seems familiar in structure that’s by design. It’s similar to the way the San Antonio Spurs were built around Tim Duncan for years.

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 28.9 point, 8.1 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.4 steals

For all of the great times LeBron James fueled at Quicken Loans Arena during his two stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers, you could argue he’s been even better in that building with the visiting team. He’s 6-1 in return trips to the “Q” after Wednesday’s 32-point, 14-rebound, seven-assist masterpiece fueled the Lakers’ comeback win in his first work trip home to northeast Ohio since relocating to Los Angeles over the summer. The reception this time was much warmer than LeBron’s first trip home in the visiting team’s jersey eight years ago (you remember how nasty things got then). The win snapped a four-game losing streak in Cleveland for the Lakers and provided the glaring image of what a team with LeBron can look like compared to a team that’s trying to put the pieces together after losing a player of his caliber. Even more amazing is that LeBron is capable of playing at this level this deep into his career. And Tyson Chandler’s been the added bonus — 6-1 since he joined them — LeBron was looking for last month.

3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 8

Season stats: 28.1 points, 13.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.1 blocks

The addition of Jimmy Butler hasn’t changed the mission for Embiid. He’s not shy about declaring his desire to dominate whoever is lined up across from him (just ask Detroit’s Andre Drummond). And he doesn’t discriminate, as New Orleans Pelicans superstar big man Anthony Davis found out Wednesday night. Embiid dominated their head-to-head battle, finishing with 31 points (11-for-23 shooting), 19 rebounds two assists and two blocks while Davis managed 12 points, 16 rebounds and six assists on a night that saw him cross the 10,000-point plateau for his career. Any conversation about the best big man in the game today has to start with Embiid, who has produced a league-best 12 games with 30 or more points and 10 or more rebounds and six games with at least 30 and 15. The Sixers still have some chemistry to work out with their new Big 3 of Embiid, Butler and Ben Simmons. And they have to solve their road woes (they are 10-0 at home but just 3-7 away from Wells Fargo Center). But they are getting everything they could ask for from Embiid, who would, of course, be the first player to agree with anyone willing to suggest that he has risen above the crowd in the big man ranks.

4. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 26.4 points, 6.1 assists, 5.3 rebounds

Lillard has battled to maintain his high level of play during the Trail Blazers’ recent rough stretch away from home, averaging 27.6 points (on .375 shooting, .268 beyond the 3-point line) during a 2-3 road stretch that continues tonight in Lillard’s hometown of Oakland against the struggling Warriors (10:30 ET, NBA League Pass). Lillard stepped up in a major way, piling up 69 points in back-to-back wins over the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks but couldn’t find his mark (22 points on just 5-for-12 shooting, 1-for-6 from deep) in Wednesday night’s blowout loss to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. The trip home, where Lillard always seems to rise to the magnitude of the moment, is the perfect place for the star to get himself and his team back on track. The Warriors, losers of four straight games for the first time in the Steve Kerr era, will play their eighth straight game without Stephen Curry (groin injury). That guarantees that Lillard and backcourt mate C.J. McCollum will be in attack mode from the opening tip. The Blazers need a recovery win more than they need a statement game win right now. But if they can find a way to get both tonight, that’s probably fine with their captain.

5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 29.5 points, 6.1 assists, 5.0 assists

The Warriors’ current four-game slide points to the cavernous gap between the Warriors with and without Curry in the mix (they are actually 2-5 since he went down wit the groin injury). A team that was cooking (10-2 and +128 point differential) with Curry in his usual role can’t find the kitchen without him (2-5 and -46). Wednesday’s brutal home loss at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder is just the latest and most glaring reminder of Curry’s true value to this crew’s bottom line. It doesn’t help that they’re also grinding without Draymond Green these days as well. They hadn’t suffered four straight losses in the Steve Kerr era, some 450 games before getting blown off the floor by the Thunder. Curry isn’t expected to suit up against either Portland (tonight) or Sacramento (Sunday). So he won’t be able to tend to the mess his teammates have made of things while he sits and watches in street clothes. He’ll be back soon enough. For the Warriors, his turn cannot come soon enough.

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The Next Five

6. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

7. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

8. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

9. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies

10. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

And five more: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors; James Harden, Houston Rockets; Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics; Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers; Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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