How one development opened up Kemba Walker’s pick-and-roll game

Feel the Buzz: Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) Andre. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Feel the Buzz: Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) Andre. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports /

The Charlotte Hornets are one of the surprise teams from the first few weeks of this NBA season. Their defense has been predictably fantastic, but it’s their offense that has taken another step forward and vaulted them into the conversation with the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Much of that success is thanks to Kemba Walker, who continues to build on a breakout 2015-16 season.

Walker has stepped up his offensive game across the board. He’s better at scoring in the pick-and-roll than he’s been the past few years and he’s putting up 1.71 points per possession on spot-up looks when he’s not handling the ball. The only players in the NBA who currently sport a better mark than Walker in that department: Kyle Korver and Channing Frye.

Such a vast improvement year over year would normally scream small sample size (and that’s probably at play here as well), but Walker’s shot improvement isn’t just coming on wide-open catch-and-shoot jumpers — he’s making teams pay from consistently going under ball screens, which to this point has been the go-to strategy for every Hornets opponent. Just watch Kyle Lowry duck under the Cody Zeller screen in the video below, allowing Walker to pull-up for the perimeter with ease.

In the early part of this season, Walker has made the leap from very good to absolutely unguardable in the pick-and-roll with the addition of this off-the-dribble 3. Having that weapon in his arsenal is the difference between the Curry-Lillard tier of point guards and the rest of the league, and it will push the Hornets past being a mid-tier playoff team in April and May if he can keep up this level of production.

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Later in the same game against the Raptors, Terrence Ross picks up Walker in transition and goes under a Roy Hibbert screen. Walker takes one dribble to his left and knocks down the pull-up 3-pointer.

That quick jab he makes right after catching the pass back from Marco Belinelli is incredibly important for Walker’s ability to force Ross under that screen because he is so quick off the dribble that defenders have to respect it. Walker has been successful making use of jab steps and misdirection dribbles to throw defenders off balance before dribbling around the screen in order to open himself up for a drive, pull-up jumper or simply to force the defense to switch.

For example, Walker dribbles up the court with the ball in his right hand then crosses over to his left just as Marvin Williams arrives to screen T.J. McConnell, leaving McConnell to run right into Williams and essentially forcing Dario Saric to switch onto Walker. Walker then calls for another screen, forces another switch onto Jahlil Okafor, then shakes and dances his way to an open jumper.

The initial switch that brings Saric out to defend him makes the rest of that play happen, and it’s the little things like a quick crossover or jab step at which Walker has excelled. Walker is a lot more comfortable going to his left on these pull-up jumpers, but he’s just as capable of going right and stopping and popping.

That double switch also happens to be one of Walker’s preferred tricks. He loves running a quick pick-and-pop with Williams just to see if the defense will switch, then brings up Zeller or Hibbert for another screen.

The Milwaukee Bucks switch the initial Williams screen, comfortable in leaving Giannis Antetokounmpo on the perimeter against Walker. Antetokounmpo is quick enough to stay close enough to Walker on a drive and long enough to contest him at the rim or if he steps back for a jumper, so that’s a decent matchup for the Bucks on the face of it. However, Walker doesn’t attack the big man off the dribble, instead patiently waiting for Hibbert to come up and set another screen, leaving him open to walk into a 3-pointer. As many physical gifts as Antetokounmpo has, getting through a Hibbert screen to contest that shot isn’t something with which he’s comfortable.

In a league that’s becoming more switch-happy by the year, the Hornets have found a great way to punish teams who switch their power forwards onto Walker. Most bigs won’t be able to fight through the screen well enough to stay with Walker, whether he pulls up for a jumper or drives into the lane, and the big defending Zeller or Hibbert surely won’t have much success containing Walker in space.

Another ace up Steve Clifford’s sleeve is the double drag screen in semi-transition. Against a half court defense, this sort of action brings too much clutter to the top of the key and doesn’t give the 6-foot-1 Walker a chance to see over or around the thicket of arms and legs flying at him. But in transition, defenses are never quite set to deal with these double screens and it gets Walker either going toward the basket or pulling-up from the perimeter.

Running Isaiah Thomas through two screens all but ensures that one of the Celtics bigs is going to have to step up to Walker, but Al Horford gets there too late and Walker buries a 3-pointer in his eye. Again, Walker puts a little move on Thomas before using the double drag screen to get his shot to take him further out of the play and make sure that Thomas won’t be sneaking up behind him to contest his shot. NBA defenses have been more willing to let ball handlers get those pull-up jumpers if it means that his primary defender is contesting from behind, to the point where it’s being emphasized in one of the best defenses in the league.

This little in-and-out dribble at the top of the key makes Thomas jump to his left so that Walker can explode around the screens and not have to worry that Thomas might be there to contest his shot from behind.

Another opportunity to show off the quickness and handle that makes him one of the NBA’s premier offensive point guards, another pull-up 3 that could push him into the All-Star and All-NBA stratosphere. Walker dribbles up the right side of the court as Hibbert and Frank Kaminsky get into position, Cory Joseph correctly ICEs the screen to try to persuade Walker to go toward the baseline, but Walker gives Joseph one of his patented crossovers and goes back to his left. Joseph chases him through the maze, but not before Walker is able to get a shot off.

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This development in Walker’s game doesn’t just open him up for drives to the rim when his defenders start to go over screens. His teammates will reap the rewards of his newfound shooting prowess.

Williams sets a screen and pops open to the corner, where he receives the ball from Walker for an open 3-pointer. Derrick Favors has to respect Walker’s shot and drive off the screen, pausing for just one beat, which is all Williams needs to find the open shot. In previous years, Shelvin Mack would have fought under the Williams screen and Favors would have stuck to Williams on the pop, but now Walker is commanding the type of respect only afforded to the very best point guards in the NBA, which gives his teammates abundant opportunities to pitch in around him.

Walker’s continued excellence in the pick-and-roll is a big reason the Hornets find themselves near the top of the Eastern Conference. And based on how everything has played out to this point, it could also be the difference between another first round exit and a berth in the Conference Finals.