Nine minutes were enough to provide a microcosm of the Charlotte Hornets’ season.
Ninety seconds into the second half of a November game, Kemba Walker rolls toward the basket, runs baseline and takes a bounce pass from Cody Zeller, laying it into the basket.
Now with the ball, Walker starts at the top of the key, crosses over Landry Shamet and takes one step to his right. Zeller arrives with a screen to prevent Shamet from recovering, and Walker knocks down a 3-pointer.
When Jimmy Butler takes his turn guarding him, Walker drives from the right side. By the time the double team arrives, he’s already switched hands and flicked it in off the backboard.
Now driving from the left, Walker crosses over, pulls up just inside the free-throw line and fades away, rattling in a jumper.
Dribbling around a Zeller screen, Walker suddenly stops a foot behind the free-throw line and makes an exaggerated shot fake, his arms extending up like Plastic Man. Markelle Fultz falls for it wholeheartedly, and, as he descends back to earth, embarrassed, Walker drains a floater.
Tony Parker corrals a long defensive rebound and heads up court. Walker is already there, accepts the long outlet pass and drains a transition three. There’s a little over a minute and a half left in the third quarter. The Hornets started the stretch trailing by five points. Walkers last shot, his 16th point of the quarter and 39th of the game, put Charlotte up by one.
Walker would finish the game with 60 points, most by anyone in the NBA this season, but, in a reminder of the ways things have gone the previous seven seasons, the Hornets would fall just short, losing to the 76ers by three in overtime.
All season long, Walker has carried the Hornets, pushing them into Eastern Conference playoff contention by sheer force of will. It’s been a pattern all eight years of his career, but this season, unlike the others, his will might just be strong enough to finish the job.
Walker is scoring 24.9 points per game, the highest of his career, as are his 4.5 rebounds. More critical to Charlotte’s success, his 6.3 assists per night are also a career high.
While Walker has moments of heroism as he takes the final step into NBA superstardom, he’s also involving his teammates. In a December win over Detroit, he scored a game-high 31, but it was his pass to Jeremy Lamb — his game-high ninth assist — that provided the game-winner.
“He’s doing it more and more,” coach James Borrego said. “The ball is moving. He sees two guys, he’s kicking it. He trusts his teammates. That’s when we’re at our best. … Kemba understands that. He’s growing in that area.”
Walker’s breakthrough season comes one year after he was rumored to be on the trading block. With the team in transition, cases were being made that dealing the franchise’s all-time scoring leader might be the fastest way to get pieces for a rebuild. Instead, the Hornets have doubled down on their best player.
“He wants to build a winner here,” Borrego said in a TV interview.
Kemba Walker might be the most important building block in that process, which makes him the North State Journal’s 2018 Player of the Year.
Also Considered: Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey; UNC forward Luke Maye; NC State quarterback Ryan Finley and receiver Kelvin Harmon.
Running back Nyheim Hines had just finished a breakthrough junior year at NC State, and we thought he’d be one of the key offensive players on a 2018 Wolfpack team that could contend for the ACC Atlantic Division crown. Instead, Hines decided to enter the NFL Draft, where he was selected in the fourth round by the Indianapolis Colts. As a rookie, he’s shown the same versatility that made him such a game-breaking threat with the Pack. He’s gained more than 300 yards each rushing and receiving.