Taking His Shot

Kemba Walker's improving mid-range game may give him longer staying power in the NBA. (Getty Images)

Kemba Walker's improving mid-range game may give him longer staying power in the NBA. (Getty Images)

What is striking about Kemba Walker, the astonishingly quick Bobcats point guard, is how much his improvement from his rookie year in 2011-12 to last season was concentrated in one area: his shooting.

Walker’s Player Efficiency Rating jumped from an adequate 14.9 in 2011-12 to 18.2 in 2012-13. But his component stats, like a solid assist percentage, low turnover percentage, and even his usage rate stayed virtually identical.

His shooting percentage, though, jumped from 36.6 percent to 42.3 percent. That change came about almost exclusively from an area of the court that is known as the worst spot for shooting efficiency on the court: 16 to 23 feet, just inside the three-point line.

Walker did reduce the percentage of attempts from there. Nearly 30 percent of his shots during his rookie year came from 16-to-23 feet, and he made just 33.9 percent of them. But he still took 19 percent of his shots from that distance last season, and sank nearly 44 percent of them.

The rest of his shooting percentage by area stayed relatively static. The area of next-best improvement? 10-to-16 feet away from the basket.

It’s an area of his game that probably kept Walker, who got to the basket at will throughout his tenure at Connecticut, from getting drafted even higher than ninth in the 2011 draft.

“I’ve always had that shot,” Walker told me prior to his game Tuesday night against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. “Growing up, playing against guys, I’ve always been so used to getting to the basket, on every level. I was able to get to the basket, finish at the rim. At this level it doesn’t work like that. So I’ve just kind of learned that I’ve had to stop and pull up for my shot more.”

Walker has increased his ability to get to the basket, even at this level, though. He shot just over 30 percent of the time at the rim last year, up from around 20 percent the year before.

Still, it’s that mid-range that Walker believes can give him staying power in the league, as he showed off against the Knicks on Tuesday night:

“So I can shoot a higher percentage,” Walker said. “And also so I can take better care of my body. Instead of going to the basket all the time, getting banged up, going amongst the trees, barely six feet, it makes it easier for me.”

His head coach, Steve Clifford, is thrilled with Walker’s development. But he also recognizes that the difference between Walker as a solid starter, which he is now, and a star, is how much better he can shoot.

“I think his range shooting which I think he’s capable,” Clifford said prior to the game. “There’s a lot of things I’m happy with. Every day that I’m around him, I’m more and more convinced that he could be the leader on a really good team. He’s an A1 competitor. It’s really important to him. You show him something once and it’s done. It’s done. There’s a lot of things that I’m happy about, but he’d really be at the top of the list.”

Naturally, the way Walker could take a leap forward greater than even the distance he’s covered so far would be if he could start making threes. It’s something he’s never done. He shot right around 33 percent from three in his final two seasons at Connecticut, with the shorter distance. With Charlotte, he shot 30.5 percent, then 32.2 percent from long distance.

But as Walker pointed out, the three is more heavily defended. That mid-range jumper though, Walker added, “is my shot. That’s a shot I can get all day. I kind of just use my speed and quickness to get that shot, stopping on a dime.”

That’s how nearly all of his threes came in 2011-12, with just 19 percent of them assisted. In 2012-13, that percentage increased to 24 percent, suggesting a greater number of his shots came within an offensive context.

“I think, from my rookie year, it was more bad shots,” Walker said. “Last year, yeah, I just kind of took my time with it, followed through more, stayed square. I think it was a bunch of things.”

The results, though, are best seen through that 16-to-23 foot lens. By accuracy, Walker ranked 17th of 62 players in the league last year with at least 200 attempts from that distance, about even with LeBron James, and ahead of guys like Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade, players who rely on that long two.

“I’m continuing to work on it,” Walker said. “I think I’m definitely ahead of where I was two years ago, or even last year.”

Walker doesn’t have any plans to change his shot, simply looking to repetition with new shooting coach Mark Price, who knows a little something about making perimeter shots.

“He’s been great, working with him,” Walker said. “We shoot a lot.” Walker laughed, thinking about the workload. “We shoot a lot. That’s really all I can do. Like I said, it’s not really mechanics, it’s more reps, being consistent.”

That work is being put in with the ultimate addition to Walker’s game in mind: that three-pointer.

“With guys penetrating, I want to take open shots, I want to take good shots. So those, I’ve gotta make.”

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