Steve Clifford's floor general continues making strides after breakout season
Eighty-two games leaves ample space for analysis, ideas and speculation. By way of The Quarters, FOX Sports Southeast's Zach Dillard offers a weekly look at the Charlotte Hornets throughout the 2016-17 season. Here are four thoughts on Kemba Walker’s continued development, Cody Zeller’s value and more.
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Kemba Walker keeps climbing
Kemba Walker averaged 22.7 points in a seven-game playoff series against the Miami Heat with a torn meniscus in his left knee. Then the 26-year-old point guard returned from elective offseason surgery to continue building on a career year, enjoying yet another spike in his efficiency numbers.
Walker finds himself in the prime of his career surrounded by talent that fits his strengths: a strong pick-and-roll finisher (Cody Zeller), outside shooting to space opposing defenses (Marvin Williams), one of the hardest-cutting wings around who doubles as a defensive stopper (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and another playmaker to ease the burden (Nicolas Batum). His four-year, $48 million extension in 2014 now looks like a pre-cap explosion steal. In a golden age of point guards, Walker keeps climbing the ladder.
While leading the Hornets back to the playoffs, Walker knocked on the door of the 2016 All-Star Game. That knock might get louder this season. Through five games, he's once again looked the part of a franchise floor general. He owns a higher player efficiency rating (PER) than Kyrie Irving and a better true shooting percentage than Steph Curry. (There's a more-than-decent chance that second one will be difficult to maintain.)
This has turned into a habit for Walker. He's taken steps forward in every season under coach Steve Clifford:
2013-14: 16.8 PER, .093 win shares per 48
2014-15: 17.6 PER, .101 win shares per 48
2015-16: 20.8 PER, .165 win shares per 48
2016-17: 23.3 PER, .211 win shares per 48
"He wants that responsibility. He's our best player," Clifford said. "Like any team, your best two or three players are going to be the key most nights. ... We're lucky to have him."
Walker will likely never climb into the stratosphere occupied by the Westbrooks, Lillards, Pauls and Currys of the world. But watching him pull the strings on a fully healthy Hornets lineup, hitting step-back jumpers en route to the 10th-best true shooting percentage among starting guards — once his Achilles heel — one thought comes up: The 2015-16 season may not have been Kemba Walker's peak.
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Nicolas Batum wants no part of a post-max slump
Here is a list of starting perimeter players ranked by their net rating (per NBA.com): Nicolas Batum, LeBron James and Chris Paul. That's the top three in the NBA through two weeks, meaning something is going right for the Hornets wing following his $120 million payday.
He's keeping the right type of company, at least.
Batum opened the season in a 9-for-33 shooting drought that he snapped out of against the 76ers and Nets, but his net value is particularly tied to his defensive numbers right now. In this capacity, it helps to have help. Of the 168 minutes Batum has logged this season, 101 have come alongside Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a luxury the Hornets could not rely on for most of the previous campaign. Kidd-Gilchrist's presence eases Batum's defensive responsibilities — even in Charlotte's switch-heavy system.
Batum's numbers have improved along with the team's overall performance. The Hornets rank third in the league in defensive efficiency, and while offensive powers await — four of their next five games offer top-11 offenses to stop, including the top-ranked Cavaliers — Clifford seems happy with how his first unit is meshing. And understandably so.
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Frank Kaminsky looks more assertive
With Jeremy Lamb sidelined and the likes of Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin gone, the Hornets are looking for second-year big man Frank Kaminsky to provide some scoring and playmaking punch for their second unit.
The Wisconsin product missed the first two games with a foot injury, but he's been aggressive in the three games since. His usage rate is hovering around 20 percent — up nearly three points from last season — and he's shown very little hestitation when the ball swings to him on the outside. His ability to space the floor as a 7-footer played a huge role in making him a lottery pick and, after a decent rookie campaign in this regard, nearly half of his shots have come from beyond the arc. (He's hit five of his 12 attempts.) Clifford typically leaves Batum or Kidd-Gilchrist in the game to anchor the second unit, but an improved Kaminsky would go a long way toward preventing a drop-off when Charlotte's top lineup sits.
As opponents attempt to counteract his shooting and close out hard on Kaminsky, his ability to put the ball on the floor will once again be an asset. His assist rate is twice as high as it was a year ago as he's starting to pick up on the right places to move the ball when the defense reacts. The early returns on Kaminsky growing into a viable offensive threat off the bench — perhaps even a second-unit centerpiece — are positive.
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Cody Zeller's extension refocuses attention on his strengths
The 2013 draft class was an oddity, and the players receiving early extensions last week underscored the group's scattershot nature.
Of the first nine players taken, only No. 2 (Victor Oladipo) and No. 4 (Zeller) signed early extensions. The remaining six came from Lehigh University, New Zealand (by way of Pittsburgh), Greece, Germany, Senegal (by way of Louisville) and France. For the most part, the front offices that found top value in the '13 class either logged serious SkyMiles or watched No. 1 seeds Louisville and Indiana in that year's NCAA tourney.
Zeller's four-year, $56 million extension was the cheapest of the eight deals handed down, an apparent team-friendly discount due to past injuries and unclear precedent. The 7-footer is a starting-caliber NBA player completing a formidable starting five in Charlotte, but career averages of 7.5 points and 5.4 rebounds do not jump off the page. He's not an elite post scorer nor defender. He helps fit other puzzle pieces together, though.
Zeller is a fitting partner for pick-and-roll guru Kemba Walker, scoring 1.22 points per possession as the roll man last season (10th-best among players with 50 or more possessions ), and his shooting percentages have improved every season. He runs the floor well and is mobile enough to be in the right spots defensively.
The 24-year-old made it clear that financial security was high on his list of priorities, but he could have tested restricted free agency. As the cap explodes and teams scour the market for valuable pieces, Zeller could have been a popular name if this season spells more improvement. Instead, he took the four years and smiled through the press conference.
The Hornets' front office seemed more than happy to oblige.
"If you give an extension you more or less control the situation a lot better than have to match an offer sheet," general manager Rich Cho said. "It only takes one team, and there are some teams desperate to get restricted free agents."
The Hornets have spent a lot of money over the past few months locking up their core, inking Batum and Williams to long-term deals as well. Zeller could (quietly) end up being the biggest bargain of the bunch.