The Charlotte Hornets (yes they are back with that name) started off their new era last night at home against the Milwaukee Bucks. The rebranding on and off the court was certainly evident and the building was abuzz, it seemed as if the players were just as if not more amped up for the game than the fans. Walker himself alluded to that after the game stating that he had trouble sleeping the night before and was just too “amped” up for the home opener.
The Hornets were dominated by the Bucks for three and a half quarters, before Charlotte started to resemble a team that had the sixth best defense in the league. Kris Middleton, OJ Mayo, and Brandon Knight were having great games. Milwaukee did a great job of doubling Al Jefferson to keep the ball out of his hands which hampered the Charlotte offense significantly.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams really kept the Hornets afloat on offensively until their “Big 3” got going, MKG and Williams combined for 14-20 shooting for 36 points. Lance Stephenson got going with a big time dunk on Bucks center Larry Sanders, MKG got out and finished in transition to get the lead within 15 heading into the fourth quarter. That’s when the Hornets rediscovered their sting, they would outscore Milwaukee 32-17 to tie the game and force overtime.
Leading 99-97 with 7.1 seconds left in regulation, Middleton headed to the line with a chance to put his team up four points and out of striking distance. He went on to split the pair which gave Charlotte a chance and that’s all they would need. The Hornets did not have any timeouts left so they had to inbound the ball after the made free throw, Walker got the inbounds and raced up court. He used a screen from Al Jefferson, hit his defender with a slow in-and-out dribble before rising and hitting the game tying three pointer.
Kemba really struggled with his shot last night, having missed 12 of his 17 prior to hitting the shot to send the game to overtime. The Bucks jumped out quick in the extra period, building a four point lead. But it wasn’t sustainable as the Hornets were fully engaged and got the necessary stops to keep the game close. Gary Neal tied the game at 106 with a great drive to the basket. The Hornets got the stop on the ensuing possession, which led to Walker’s second big shot of the game. With the shot clock running down, Walker found himself isolated on the right wing with Brandon Knight. The 48 million dollar man went hit a step-back jumper (long two) over the outstretched finger tips of Knight to give the Hornets a 108-106 lead.
Middleton got the ball on the ensuing possession and missed a wide open three pointer, it was a well drawn up play by Coach Jason Kidd. Here’s the video of both the game tying shot and game winning shot by Kemba Walker last night.
Walker signed the four year, $48 million dollar deal the Hornets extended to him earlier today. The reports of the deal came out two days ago and the reactions are either heavily in favor or despised vehemently. There seems to be no middle ground from basketball fans in general, writers, or “experts”.
The fact is the Hornets believe in him as their “guy” going forward, the person they wish to build the team around. Everyone expects the salary cap to go up exponentially in the coming seasons, which would make this deal beyond team friendly and very close to a steal. When the deal ends it’s course, Walker will be just 28 years old and the Hornets will know exactly what he is and who he is as a player. At this point he’s still growing, but it speaks volumes that even with someone like Al Jefferson on the team, that when the game is in the balance it’s “Kemba” time. Jefferson has said multiple times since he’s been in Charlotte that Walker is unquestionably the team’s leader.
There are things that Walker needs to work on, primarily his efficiency as most will point out. That should take a huge tick up this year with the addition of Lance Stephenson as a backcourt partner and what seems like an improved MKG. He should also improve as a three point shooter in the coming seasons. His decision making must improve as well, this is something else that should get better as Charlotte continues to surround him with better pieces.
For all of his weaknesses, there are things Walker brings to the table that can’t be taught. The video above being just one of the examples, Coach Clifford has gone on record saying that Kemba’s competitiveness is infectious and it drives his teammates. Majority owner Michael Jordan said he wanted to get the deal done before the deadline and they did, here’s what Jordan had to say on the importance of the Hornets retaining both Walker and Jefferson:
“They are core pieces of what we’re trying to do. I’d like to keep both of those guys. I say I’d like to, and I’d spend the money that’s appropriate. I’ll make every attempt to keep them.”
Kemba’s postseason performance also factored in to that extension as well, with Al Jefferson hampered against the Miami Heat, Walker was still very productive. He was able to give Miami problems as their guards weren’t able to keep him out of the paint, he also was able to create shots for his teammates. He averaged 19.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 6 assists, two steals while shooting 47% from the floor and 50% from beyond the arc. The bigger the lights, the better the performance it seems.
While Walker shot horribly last night, he hit two of the game’s biggest shots. More importantly for someone who has the ball as much as he does, he rarely turns it over. In 39 minutes last night, Walker had 26 points, 6 rebounds, five assists and not one turnover.
Charlotte was happy to extend the offer and are happy two keep a core piece in place for the next four years. As time passes, we’ll get to see how Walker develops and if the Hornets made a bad investment or if they locked up their starting point guard for cheap.