Wednesday January 6th, 2016

Welcome to The Craft, a serial look inside the world of player development in the NBA.

Everything for Kemba Walker begins with the jumper. The most indelible image of his basketball career is that of a limber stepback, managed with enough grace to keep Walker on balance and his defender at a distance. There is no sharper weapon that a 6'1" guard can deploy in a league of giants. The jumper serves him well.

Not well enough, though, for Walker to yet be content. Last season, 210 NBA players finished the year with at least 100 made jump shots. Walker ranked 178th among them in effective field goal percentage on those attempts—his volume scoring ways beset by inefficiency. A spacing-challenged Hornets roster did him no favors, but Walker compounded his problems with his own spatial limitations. Consistent shooting beyond 20 feet eluded him. As a result, Charlotte’s offense was compromised by the fact that defenders needed to respect Walker’s jumper only to a point. That specific quirk gave defenses more room for error on any possession when Walker had the ball in his hands and free rein to wander on any occasion he didn’t.

Walker, a lifelong shooter, took this problem in stride. Development isn’t possible without recognition, and it’s a credit to Walker that he interpreted how defenses were guarding him as a call for focused improvement. His stated intention was to deny opponents the choice to go under his ball screens. The only way to force that adjustment would be to first prove himself capable of taking—and making—the kinds of pull-up three-pointers that would bring a defense to regret.

“He knows the numbers,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “He's always been 32–33% from three. Now if you get him up to 37–38, he's living in a different place.”

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The plan to get to that place went into motion back in June, when Charlotte hired Bruce Kreutzer as its new shooting coach. In their first session together, Kreutzer filmed Walker shooting in an empty gym and broke down his form to its core components. Walker doesn’t have the kind of shooting motion that screams for mechanical overhaul. Kreutzer, though, specializes in fine-tuning the form of professionals to make their shot as easily replicable as possible. His diagnostic starts with a player’s footwork.

“Everything is built from the ground up,” Kreutzer said.

Kreutzer found that Walker, like many guards, sometimes drifted backward on his release as a result of jumping off the heel. Getting Walker to stay on the balls of his feet would be the first order of correction. From the feet up, Kreutzer generally liked what he saw in Walker’s form; no significant changes were made in terms of Walker’s body positioning or shooting pocket, save for a slight adjustment in the way Walker was bringing the ball up and into his shot.

“When I shot last year, I was putting the ball in front of my face,” Walker said. “So now we just try to move it over a little more to the right so the ball isn't in front of my face anymore.”

This was the result of Walker naturally drawing the ball down to his left hip before pulling up, across his body, to release from his right hand. LeBron James does he same. Players of Walker’s stature, however, can’t afford that kind of delay; in the race to rise and release before a longer defender can fully close out, every fraction of a second is precious. Walker’s revised form allows him to pull the trigger on jumpers without having to reset to his left. The right side of his body is in more direct alignment.

“It's maybe one or two inches but in the end, one or two makes a big difference,” Kreutzer said.

Walker’s shooting numbers thus far bear that out. After 34 games, Walker is making a career–best 35.3% of his three-pointers—significant improvement for a player who had shot 30.4% from long range just last season. When defenders have gone under Walker’s screens, he has pulled up to hit 37.5% on "punishing" three-point shots this season, according to Synergy Sports. The scouting report is changing before his very eyes, and the Hornets—now a top-10 offense after ranking No. 28 last year—are all the better for it.

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“Some teams are going over screens a lot more and other aspects of the game are just opening up for me,” Walker said. “I’m able to create a lot more, make a pass for my teammates so that they can make another play. Things are definitely a lot more open for me.”

His work isn’t finished. Walker continues to meet with Kreutzer almost every day to fight off old habits and push through the discouragement of shooting slumps. But again: everything for Walker begins with the jumper. Charlotte’s offense went sideways last season when opponents dared him to shoot. Walker would oblige, at times, without much success. By improving enough for opponents to take notice, Walker both juices his personal efficiency by trading out some of his long two-pointers for threes and completely unsettles the way the Hornets have traditionally been defended. At long last Walker is evolving in a way to take advantage of the changing geometry of the league, wherein opponents key in closely to the threat of the three-point shot.

“Think about it,” Clifford said. “So let's say the pick's set up near the three and they're going under. You can screen again, but one, it takes longer, and two, it changes the spacing. They have time to adjust. Versus now if they go under, he's pulling and he's making them. So they're [going] over the top and it literally – if you look at it – it gives him sometimes four or five more feet of room to attack. There's literally more room on the floor that they have to guard him. And he's so fast and quick, that's difficult to do.”

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It is not a coincidence that Walker, even through the prolonged absence of Al Jefferson, is thriving behind career-best scoring output (19.6 points per game) and career-best efficiency (54.7% true shooting). Slight technical adjustment and tireless shooting repetition have opened the game up to him. When Walker clears a screen, he now sees his options plainly: an open lane, a clear angle, and teammates on all sides capable of spacing the floor. The modernization of the Hornets’ offense comes in part from that critical tipping point. Once opposing guards were pushed to play the threat of Walker’s jumper honestly, the possibilities of Charlotte’s system snapped into reality.

Walker was prepared to capitalize from his work with Hornets assistant Steve Hetzel, who hones the mechanics of his pick-and-roll play. For the past two seasons, Hetzel has worked with Walker on setting up the pick-and-roll with various dribble moves. Applying some calculation to Walker’s quick feet and live handle is just brutal; it takes an incredibly discerning defender to stay in position as Walker throws one or two sudden changes of direction at an opponent before running them into a screen:

“If you watch him, on most of his really good possessions, he makes it hard for [the defender] to really get into his body, Clifford said. “He's got pivots or he's got fakes with the ball, and if he wants to come this way he'll move the defender the other way. It's fairly simple stuff but I think the work he's done with Steve [Hetzel] has made him—I don't know if you want to use ‘crafty,’ but he's very hard to contain because of all the things he does.”

From that, clean dribble penetration comes more easily to Walker than ever before. Walker’s own man is often behind him. The defender in front of him (generally the man tasked to guard the screener) often falls back on his heels while Walker dances with the ball. The stutters and shifts Walker makes on the move keep shot-blockers from ever fully pegging his angle of attack.

“They're worried just the same of his quickness as he is of their size,” Hetzel said.

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That isn’t to say that a pocket-sized guard will always get the better of the seven-footers lurking in the paint. Walker still gets his shot rejected plenty and rushes through some attempts as a rim protector looms. Yet among his physical peers (guards his height or shorter), only Kyle Lowry, Rajon Rondo, and Darren Collison have converted a higher percentage of their shots from the restricted area this season. Walker had to work hard to get there; his own shooting in the restricted area is up nearly seven percent from last season, per NBA.com, in part from learning on film when to attack and when to continue probing.

“[The coaches] show me a lot of the stuff where I go into the lane and my shot gets blocked or a big guy just altered my shot,” Walker said. “They show me where I could've kept my dribble alive and kept dribbling through or, when I'm in the air, know how many guys I have just surrounding me and how much attention I create. I always have open guys. That's something I'm still trying to learn, just where my guys are.”

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When Walker does decide to push all the way to the rim, he’s having more success than before by way of creating contact early. The sooner that he can get a bump on a potential help defender, the better; Walker isn’t quite big enough to keep a shot-blocker on his hip the whole way, but he’s quick enough on his feet to make the most of that moment his defender spends in recoil. Hetzel runs Walker through all kinds of scenarios to ensure that he’s capable of using the rim for protection, showing the ball on one side of his body only to finish on the other, and taking two steps—long or short—in any direction. Guards that are Walker’s size can’t get by with a single go-to move. They need every trick possible to stay a step ahead of their significantly taller and longer opponents.

“As far as getting in there amongst the trees, that's something I'm still trying to get better with,” Walker said. “It's pretty tough to finish over these guys. That's where decision-making comes in—the decision to either get a quick shot, a quick layup, and make it or find one of my teammates. That's something I think I still have to get better at: Keeping my dribble alive and just continuing to probe in there and try to find my teammates.”

The Hornets want Walker pushing for that next-level recognition. Forcing a defender to chase you over a screen and into the lane is powerful in itself for the way it brings two opponents to the ball. Due to his height, however, Walker can’t afford to get caught in a trap; the passing angles for Walker aren’t quite as accessible under pressure as they would be for a bigger ball handler. In that, so much of Walker’s success will come from learning and internalizing the path to get to particular kinds of shots, reading defensive rotations and making moves to preemptively freeze the second defender, and moving the ball early after drawing a defensive commitment.

“His next step,” Hetzel said, “is just to play chess.”

Thinking three moves ahead requires the certainty that one can consistently execute the first. Walker, in building out his range and seizing the opportunities that came as a result, has earned that.

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