CHARLOTTE, NC — Kemba Walker has become what the Charlotte Bobcats have needed so desperately since their inception in 2004: the burgeoning, future star a franchise can build its team around.
In what has turned into a guard’s league, general manager Rich Cho must have been smiling while watching his prized backcourt possession Wednesday night as he went toe-to-toe with the league’s premier floor general in a 100-94 loss against the Los Angeles Clippers. While Clippers’ point guard Chris Paul showed he clearly remains at the top of the NBA’s point guard ladder with 19 points and 10 assists, Walker didn’t back down and largely played him to a draw through the first three quarters.
Facing Paul, a perennial All-NBA defender, and pesky Eric Bledsoe was a challenge Walker said he looked forward to. But this should have been the game that slowed Walker’s December surge.
“No. 1, he wanted the challenge, and I think his report card was really strong,” Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap said of Walker. “He fared very, very well in that, and he continues to grow.”
No one is saying Walker’s among the NBA’s elite point guards at this point in his career, but the sophomore jump has been substantial.
He has grown from a wild, inconsistent rookie — one who split point guard duties with D.J. Augustin last season — to the leader of perhaps the most improved group in the league. In December, Walker is averaging 20.5 points and 6.4 assists per game while shooting 49 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range. He averaged 16 and 6 in November; the jump is obvious and significant.
The Bobcats added veteran guard Ramon Sessions in the offseason, but Augustin’s departure clearly gave Walker the impression that it was now his team, and teammates have praised the leadership role he’s taken on. He’s at the helm now, and Dunlap has given him the keys to an offense that was dreadful just a season ago — ranking dead last in the NBA at 87 points per contest.
That ranking has improved to 18th this year (96 points per game), and much of that has to be accredited to Walker. Late in the shot clock, Walker’s the one Bobcats player who can seemingly break his man down at will and get a shot whenever he wants.
In the open floor, he’s even more difficult to stay in front of.
“He’s definitely scoring the ball. He’s very quick. Great in transition. His medium range is great. I don’t know where we’d be without Kemba,” center Brendan Haywood said. “Kemba’s played awesome and we hope it only gets better.”
Added shooting guard Gerald Henderson: “Kemba’s just a baller. I really can’t say it any other way. He don’t back down from anybody.”
There were flashes a season ago — nine games of 20 or more points, for starters — but a shaky jumper (36.6 percent from the field) often nullified his lethal first step. That’s no longer the case, at least not in recent weeks.
And, no, he couldn’t lead the Bobcats to a win against the Clippers, but this one had all the makings of a blowout a season prior: a superior opponent and an early five-point deficit would have crushed Charlotte last season.
But just like Walker, they showed flashes of what they’re becoming, pushing a Western Conference titan to the final minute and showing fight before a mix of turnovers and missed opportunities on the boards did them in.
“We fought as hard as possible,” Walker said. “They’re a really good team. All we can really ask for is to play hard and play tough and not back down, and that’s what we did. Of course, the loss hurt, but we’re getting better. And that’s all that counts.”
Between Walker and rookie forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, this team shows a certain grit about it unseen in Charlotte a year ago. The Clippers, Dunlap says, could be in the championship series and have the best bench the Bobcats have seen to date. But that was never enough to pull away from the Bobcats, who can somehow feel a certain sense of pride in this loss.
They couldn’t get across the threshold, but Walker again proved he’s going to be a handful for teams visiting Charlotte. Not even Chris Paul, the league’s preeminent floor general, was a devastating mismatch on this night.
As Walker grows, so too will the Bobcats.
“The sky’s the limit [for Walker]. He can do almost everything out there. He has a great pull-up, he gets down the lane at will, and he finds guys,” Haywood said. “Just as he continues to get more and more comfortable out there, I think he’ll get better and better.”