Improved Kemba Walker has Hornets back in the playoffs

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Charlotte is back in the NBA playoffs thanks in large part to the improved play of Kemba Walker.

The fifth-year point guard has improved dramatically in nearly every statistical category this season for the Hornets, who are tied with Boston for the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference at 47-34.

Not bad for a team that only won 33 games last season.

Just as Walker has improved, so have the Hornets – the correlation in their success is undeniable.

Walker has upped his scoring average to 21.1 points per game this season – 15th-best in the NBA – compared to 17.3 in 2014-15. The biggest improvement has come in his 3-point shooting which has improved to 37.4 percent after shooting 30.4 percent last season. His true shooting percentage is up 7 percent to 48.6 percent, and even his rebounding numbers and free throw percentage have climbed.

''He's playing at an All-Star level,'' teammate Nicolas Batum said.

Walker's notable improvement over last season prompted the Hornets public relations staff to put together an online spoof based off this year's political campaigns featuring Walker as a prime ''candidate'' to win the NBA's Most Improved Player.

NBA on TNT basketball analyst Greg Anthony said Walker belongs in the conversation with Portland's C.J. McCollum, Denver's Will Barton and Golden State's Stephen Curry, who has improved his scoring output even after winning league MVP honors last season.

''You can talk about the stats all you want, but from a leadership perspective he has taken the bull by the horns, ''Anthony said of Walker. ''He has been bounced back and played with a lot of fire and has become a real factor in the league.''

Hornets coach Steve Clifford said Walker's competitiveness is ''contagious'' and he's never met anyone who has worked harder in an effort to take his game to the next level.

''He's done everything he could to make himself a better player,'' Clifford said.

It started last May when Walker received a text message from assistant coach Steve Hetzel asking if he was ready to start working on his game. Walker eagerly texted back with a promise he would be in a practice the following day, vowing that nobody would outwork him.

Clifford attributed Walker's improvement to three things: his willingness to change in his shooting mechanics, learning how to better set up pick and rolls, and from playing in a one-in, four-out offensive system full time this season – something that has created better spacing and more shot opportunities.

That system ''makes a big difference,'' Clifford said.

The shortest player on the Hornets roster at 6-foot-1, Walker said he's more confident than ever shooting the basketball.

The 25-year-old Bronx native worked with Hornets first-year shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer on breaking down his shot over the summer. Kreutzer ultimately moved Walker's release point three or four inches to the right, which in turn forced him to keep his right elbow from flaring out.

Walker struggled with the new form at first.

He nearly abandoned the stroke altogether when he got off to a slow start this season, but with Kreutzer's support and advice stuck with it and persevered.

Then, shots started falling.

''That just gave me a lot of confidence,'' Walker said.

He scored a career-high 52 points in a win over the Utah Jazz in January and he's registered 13 30-point games this season. Last week he had seven 3s against the New York Knicks. Walker said he's finally found the consistency he lacked during his first four NBA seasons.

He's scored 20 or more points in 40 games this season, doubling last year's total. He's one of only five NBA players with at least 1,600 points, 400 assists, 300 rebounds, 100 3-pointers and 100 steals.

''The last couple of years, I have always had stretches where I have played pretty well, but this year I have had multiple stretches where I was just on fire – just playing really well for a long period of time,'' said Walker, a former first-round draft pick who led Connecticut to a national championship in 2011.

Walker's production hasn't gone unnoticed.

''His shot selection has really improved,'' Anthony said. ''A lot of times you look at guys and it's all about the ability to take good shots. That comes from the trust he has on the floor with his teammates. He is proving again that he's a winner. He did in it college, and is now he's doing it again as a professional.''

Online:

www.WinWithWalker.us