Celtics

Kemba Glimpsing His Old Groove?

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The Boston Celtics have two stars in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. They have a tremendous “glue-guy” in Marcus Smart. They have a bevy of young, promising players.

But what exactly do they have in Kemba Walker? A past-his-prime point guard with a streaky knee and poor shooting? Or a player one year removed from being an all-star starter who simply needed a bit of time to shake off the rust? Walker’s history suggests the latter, but there are plenty of skeptics out there.

Walker’s Tale of Two Halves

It took until the 12th game of the season before Walker was cleared to play following the stem-cell injection in his left knee. Due to that dicey left knee, he has not played both games of back-to-backs yet this season. This has resulted in Walker playing 23 games so far this season.

So how do those 23 stack up? The clearest answer comes from splitting them into two sections. In his first 10 games this season Walker put up averages of 15/3.5/4.3 on 34% from the field and 30% from deep.

Simply put, the early signs showed that Walker might not have it in him to help guide this team to Banner 18.

It wasn’t just the early season numbers that were bad. Walker simply didn’t look himself on the court. “It’s more mental than anything” Walker responded when asked about his struggles on the court following the Celitcs’ loss to the Lakers on January 30th. It wasn’t the knee acting up, it wasn’t that he was getting smothered by defenders, he was just missing shots.

Many critics speculated Walker’s best days were behind him after the early season miscues. Walker’s early limitations are detailed below by my colleague AJ Mitchell.

Consistent Kemba a Thing of the Past?

Diving Deeper

Apart from the mental block Walker faced, plenty of other factors contributed to the early woes. Perhaps the largest of them all is a sheer lack of build-up to the season. In a world without COVID-19, a player who ended their season with the conference finals (as Walker did in 2020) would have about four-and-a-half months to prepare before opening night. After the 2020 Eastern Finals, there was a little over two-and-a-half months before opening night of the 2020-2021 season.

Granted, Walker wasn’t the only player in the league who had to endure that timeline. However, he was the only player in the league to have a stem-cell injection prior to the season. The lengthy recovery kept Walker sidelined through the entirety of the preseason. Walker wasn’t even cleared to return to practice until January 8th. With very little practice time under his belt, Walker just wasn’t ready to be thrust back into the starting lineup, and his performance showed that.

Aside from lack of practice time, another reason for Walker’s struggles was the adaptation to a new role. At the start of the 2019-2020 season, Walker’s first with the Celtics, he was the No. 1 option. Taking the shots and making the calls, Walker was the clear focal point of the offense. The season progressed and with that, so did Tatum’s game. So did Brown’s game.

Walker’s No. 1 option role dissipated as the Celtics’ stars continued their ascension. Fast forward to this season, Jayson and Jaylen were ready to be No. 1 and No. 2, especially with Walker out at the start of the season. Tatum and Brown settled into those roles and when Walker returned, his role was undefined.

Walker has spoken previously about caring far more about team success than individual stats, but transitioning into a new role is hard regardless. The early-season struggles seem a bit more justifiable when considering what Walker had to work through upon his return to the court.

As previously stated, every tale has two halves.

Walker has produced averages of 20.2 points (43% FG, 39% 3PT, 94% FT), 3.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists over his last 13 games. Each and every one of those categories improved from the first ten games. To put those statistics into perspective compared to last season (when Walker was an all-star starter), his points and three-point percentage have increased while his rebounds, assists and field-goal percentage have stayed the same.

Yes, this is a small sample. Who’s to say Walker doesn’t revert back to playing like he did in those first 10 games? The promising point is that the outlier here is the statistics from the first 10 games, not his recent 13. His career statistics much closer resemble his last stretch.

Another figure that bodes well for this recent stretch, the team’s record. The Celtics have been 8-5 in Walker’s last 13 games but were 3-7 in his first 10.

Moving Forward

Neither sample yields deep conclusions, however. There’s a reason Walker has carried the “Cardiac Kemba” Moniker for the last decade. I don’t think he plans on losing that nickname anytime soon.

Were Walker’s first 10 games this season poor? Absolutely.

But context is key here. Walker battled knee issues for nearly a year, had very little practice time coming off a procedure, and adjusted to a new role. So far, it looks like it took Walker 10 games to get past those circumstances and start playing like the Kemba of old. If Walker can continue his upward trend, those first 10 games will be forgotten very quickly.

Follow us on Twitter @CelticsLead for the latest Celtics news and insight. 

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About Matthew Karst

Matthew was born and raised in Huntington, IN and now attends university in Nashville, TN. When not writing about the NBA, Matthew can be found enjoying time with friends, listening to music, or enjoying a round of disc golf.

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