NBA All-Star voting can feel like a sport of its own. The Players’ Tribune asked a handful of current NBA players to go to the mat for a fellow player who’s never made an All-Star team.
Watch him for five minutes and you’ll see it.
Kemba’s got a motor. He possesses a basketball combustion engine that you just can’t teach. A lot of guys play east-west, but Kemba is trying to north-south you. It’s like he’s always running downhill. In his mind, it’s always run-and-gun. He’s coming at you. In attack mode. That’s a nightmare for defenders guarding the point guard position.
All-Star selections are coming up, so let’s talk facts: Kemba Walker gets a little overlooked as a reserve because Charlotte has struggled this year. But Kemba is having an All-Star year. This is the year he should make the team.
If you want to know why Kemba Walker should be an All-Star, start by studying his handle. Kemba’s got it on a string. The secret to a good handle isn’t flashy handiwork, it’s actually footwork. That’s what makes Kemba’s marquee move, the stepback, so killer. You have no choice but to respect the drive and give him space. When you’re backpeddling, he sticks you. Once he plants, you’re in quicksand. There’s so much hip-hop and rhythm the way he bounces with his dribble. Watch the move.
Kemba is a little undersized at 6’1”. How many point guards under 6’2” lead their team in points and assists and run the offense? It can’t be many. But even at his size, I don’t remember anyone blocking his stepback move. For my money, it’s one of the most effective stepbacks in the game today. The Kemba Stepback. It’s the definition of an All-Star move.
Kemba’s game is unique, but it’s got a lot of young Chris Paul in it, with that handle and that speed and the ability to execute the pick and roll. But CP3 is more of a true facilitator who sets the stage — one of the purest of purest PGs of our time. Kemba’s game is score-first, which makes him a dangerous breed of point guard. He wants to fill it up, early and often. It’s a style that the Hornets desperately rely on this season because they’ve struggled with injuries and they’re still figuring out their identity.
And at the end of the game, it’s Kemba’s time. He’s clutch. He’s willing to take the big shot. He wants the ball to make that happen. That’s an All-Star quality.
I’m not just praising Kemba because we’re both UConn alums. But actually, that’s how he first came to my attention. I remember we were playing in New York and UConn had a game at the Garden. Coach Calhoun invited me back into the locker room. He always liked former players to meet the current players. This was early in the 2011 season, Kemba’s junior year, and UConn was struggling. If you remember, it turned out that their only shot at the tourney was to win the Big East Tournament. Outside expectations weren’t very high. But inside that locker room, I saw Kemba’s quiet leadership. I saw his killer instinct. Later in the season, he took that team right into the tournament and surprised a lot of people when UConn won the title. It’s a healthy underdog mentality that you see still in his game.
From a stats perspective, there’s no doubt Kemba is having an All-Star season. He’s averaging more than 19 a game, with 4 boards and 5 assists.
Those numbers qualify him as one of the elite point guards in the East, probably in the top two or three. But then there’s the “it” factor that comes into play when you’re casting All-Star votes.
Let me tell you an NBA fable that I think is relevant. Stop me if you’ve heard it before.
Two rookie guards enter the league as top prospects. We’ll call them Player 1 and Player 2. Both are extremely athletic, both are skilled and both expect long, successful careers in the league. Lots of “upside,” as pre-draft scouts like to say.
But a few years into the league, you start to notice something changing.
The players are headed down two different paths. It might take four, five years. Player 1 is thriving: he’s added new elements to his game, he’s improved weaknesses and he’s gotten stronger physically. He’s using his summers to take his game to a new level. Meanwhile, Player 2 hasn’t fallen out of the league, but he hasn’t gotten noticeably better either. He’s got the same game he always had. If he could shoot, he can still shoot. If he was a dunker, he’s still a dunker. But Player 2 is still relying on the raw athleticism or the single dimensional skill that made him dominant in college or high school.
I look at a guy like Kemba Walker and I see the embodiment of Player 1. Every year in the league, Kemba has refined an element of his game. People said he needed to improve his outside shot, so he did. People doubted he could carry last year’s Hornets squad to the playoffs, so he did. No floater? Now he has one.
Kemba’s going to continue to surprise people. With his ability and work ethic, he’s going to continue to raise the bar. I think he’s a guy who looks at competition around the league and says, “That’s what I need to work on.”
I have no doubt that his ceiling is whatever he wants it to be. Kemba deserves to suit up for the All-Star Game this year. And don’t be surprised if there are more to come. Let’s hope 2016 is the first of many.