Maybe it's the uniform number change. Maybe it's the new swirl he got shaved into his hairdo.
Whatever it is, Kemba Walker has taken his play to a new level so far this season.
Out of all the many encouraging things to take away from the Bobcats' hot start, Walker first seven games might make Bobcats fans beam the most. To this point, Walker is averaging 19 points, 5.1 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 1.9 turnovers per game. That's a 57 percent increase in points, 16 percent increase in assists, and a whole two steals per game more than his averages last year (fine, we can call that eight-steal game against Dallas an outlier). Further, his field goal percentage has jumped 18.5 percent (please note that is different from percentage points).
There are so many aspects of his game that have seen improvement. Even his free throw percentage is up significantly. The main thing that isn't up is his three-point shooting, which is a miserable 3-for-17 so far. But even that should come around as the season goes on.
Perhaps the most important improvement Kemba has shown is in scoring efficiency. Even with poor three-point shooting, his eFG% is up three points from 41.1 percent to 44.7 percent.
This is due to his newly developed strength to get to the rim. Last season, Walker took 2.7 shot attempts at the rim, making 49.4 percent of them. This season, he's more than doubled his attempts at the rim per game to 6.6 and is making 58.7 percent of those tries. And this isn't just due to an increase in minutes: 23.2 percent of all his field goal attempts last season came at the rim, compared to 40.9 percent of his field goal attempts this season. This compounds in efficiency as it leads to more trips to the free throw line, which Walker visits two more times per game than last season.
And remember all that stuff I said during the offseason about how good Kemba could be if he improved his jump shot? Well, he's hitting 48 percent of his shots from between 16-23 feet out.
Taking a brief look at MySynergySports.com, there's no shortage of encouraging things here, either. The Bobcats have had Walker run the pick and roll 44.2 percent of his possessions, and he's done well with them. Kemba has a PPP (points per play) of 0.9 on these play types, good for 15th-best in the NBA so far. He also draws shooting fouls 9.8 percent of the time on the pick and roll. Samples for the other play types are mostly too small but transition has also been promising, where Kemba has a PPP of 1.27, eigth-best in the NBA and with a 12.1 percent chance of drawing a shooting foul.
Dunlap's offensive system has done well for Walker so far. They move the ball a lot and do it fairly well. The team gets the ball into the paint a heck of a lot better than last season, though it certainly helps to have a guy like Brendan Haywood, who has done small but efficient damage in the paint (good and bad damage, I might add... coughtravelingviolationscough). Further, the Bobcats' tendency to get uptempo and in transition helps Walker's offense even more. Yet even with these coaching innovations, I don't think you can deny how Walker is shooting better and finishing at the rim with improvement over last season.
This is an area of Walker's game that has been highly challenged. I remember even on his first draft workout for the Bobcats, one of the first questions was if he could play point guard and it's still a topic of contention.
Unfortunately, Walker's passing statistics aren't one of the many that increased. Peruse Basketball-Reference or HoopData or wherever you'd like -- a few important of Kemba's assist ratings are down (AST% down from 30.2 percent to 25.7 percent per bball-ref, Assist Rate down from 29.6 to 20.19 per HoopData). Is this a reason for concern? Maybe. Maybe not. His assist to turnover ratio is up a bit and he's turning the ball over less often. His decision-making seems to have improved, even if this means he isn't Rajon Rondo.
Despite lower assist ratings and assist percentages, which calculate estimated percentage of possessions that result in assists, Walker's improved a bit in his assist efficiency. Not only is Kemba recording more assists at the rim (2.3 assists at the rim/game compared to 1.6 last season) but he's dropping 4.25 times more three-point dimes. He lost an assist within the three-point line but gained 1.7 assists per game beyond it, and with the added point of made three-pointers, that makes the Bobcats' offense more potent.
Again, Dunlap has helped here. His offense is based on a lot of screens and picks, which frees up players to get open shots. Though Byron Mullens has been struggling, he's still a threat to score from range, opening up the interior on the court and giving Walker another three-point shooter to pass to. But Kemba is also making a lot of headstrong decisions and good passes as defenses are forced to collapse on him more.
All that said, we do see Kemba try to do a little too much, which makes him seem like Leroy Jenkins as a basketball player. Like last night, he tried to engage in hero-ball, but before the final shot it was messy. He would drive right and get caught in a triple-team and try to throw up a circus shot that was inevitably blocked. Luckily, that's more rare than I remember.
I don't have too much to say about Kemba's defense. We see some lapses on occasion - like in one particularly excruciating mistake early in last night's game when he and a teammate fudged defending a pick and roll, giving up a very easy layup with no one guarding the rim.
And still, all advanced stats point to great defensive play from Kemba. Not only is he second in the league in steals per game, but MySynergySports indicates incredible defensive numbers, too.
Though it should be noted that I'm quite wary of these stats due to how they seem more likely to imply solid team defensive fundamentals and rotations, let's take a look. Kemba ranks 11th in overall defense, giving up a staunch 0.6 PPP and 27.9 percent FG%. On the pick and roll, they have Kemba ranked second overall, surrendering 0.57 PPP on 30.8 percent FG%. But again, I hesitate to credit Walker with these numbers on an individual level. Although Kemba has quick feet, the Bobcats' defense has improved its rotations, which I think has more contributed to these amazing stats. Also to consider is small sample size. I purposefully didn't discuss some types of plays because there simply haven't been that many yet. Even with the pick and roll, Walker has only defended that 30 times. I think that's a large enough number to look at, but definitely take these numbers not with a grain of salt, but rather a whole salt lick.
All told, Kemba is having the best string of games in his young career. His past has been ruled by inconsistency but now he has a new roster and a new coach. Perhaps this new Kemba Walker will continue to make strides, defying the inconsistent rules of the old one.