Hot Walker leading Hornets back into playoff contention

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Kemba Walker was a little frustrated when he started out the season struggling with his outside shot, particularly after spending so much time working on it over the summer.

Hornets coach Steve Clifford told the fourth-year point guard to stick with it, and sooner or later the shots would start to fall.

Well, they're falling all right - in droves.

The Hornets have won five straight games behind Walker, who is averaging 30.2 points, six rebounds and 4.5 assists per game during the most productive stretch of his career.

Walker is shooting a blazing 49.5 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range - well above his season averages of 40.9 percent overall and 33 percent from beyond the arc.

''He's played well all year - at a high level - but he just wasn't shooting the ball well early,'' Clifford said. ''All of us coaches felt confident that he would start to do that because he was here (in Charlotte) all summer working. He's a committed, serious player.''

Walker's hot hand has helped propel the Hornets back into the playoff hunt.

Behind the 6-foot-1, 184-pound Walker, the Hornets (15-24) are starting to rebound from a horrible start and have climbed to within two games of the eighth spot in the top-heavy Eastern Conference standings.

Clifford knew he'd be relying on Walker to take on more of the scoring load when center Al Jefferson, a third-team All-NBA selection last season, went down with a groin injury on Dec. 29.

''I didn't expect to be scoring this many points but I knew I was going to have to be a lot more consistent and score more, as well as getting people involved,'' Walker said.

Walker was quick to credit his teammates for giving him opportunities to score, saying they are setting good screens and finding him when he's open.

Clifford said Walker has also become more of a vocal leader and excelled on defense.

''As much as anything, Kemba badly wants to win,'' Clifford said.

Walker was named on Monday as this week's NBA Player of the Week in the Eastern Conference.

But while he's fifth in the NBA among point guards in scoring at 18.9 points per game and tied for fifth in assists per turnover ratio at 3.37, Walker doesn't get much recognition as a top-tier point guard.

In fact, he isn't even among the top 10 vote getters at the guard position in his own conference.

Part of that might be Charlotte's record and the lack of exposure from playing in a small market.

Clifford believes Walker is also in a tough spot playing a competitive position in the NBA that is loaded with talent.

''It's the position that has the most elite players,'' Clifford said. ''For years it was the wing position where there were just great, great players. Right now I think it's the point guard position.''

Walker isn't worried about individual accolades right now.

He's focused on keeping the Hornets in position to make a playoff run when Jefferson returns from a groin injury that was expected to keep him out a minimum of four weeks. If all goes well, Jefferson could be reunited with his teammates by the end of the month.

Not surprisingly, Walker has become Charlotte's go-to guy with the game on the line.

He already has three game-winning shots this season, including an 11-footer off the glass with 1.4 seconds left to beat the New Orleans Pelicans last week.

''He has the game to go get a shot and, second, he has the courage to take it and make it whether he missed the game before,'' Clifford said. ''And you don't teach that.''

It's been a learned trait for Walker.

He has a long history of taking - and making - last-second shots.

It began with a pump fake and a fall away 3-point at the buzzer to lead Rice High School over rival Christ the King as a junior in the New York State CHSAA Class AA state championship game. He repeatedly won big games in the 2011 Big East Tournament and then helped the Huskies to the 2011 NCAA tournament championship.

''After I hit that shot in high school, from that point on I felt like I needed to step up and make plays,'' Walker said.

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