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Forsberg's Focus: Walker's full potential in Boston unrealized

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*Each weekday for the rest of October, our Chris Forsberg will put a member of the 2019-20 Celtics under the microscope, assessing their season and what the future holds for that player. 

16.9

That’s Kemba Walker’s Player Efficiency Rating for the 2020 playoffs. PER measures a players’ per-minute production and is standardized to a league average of 15. Walker’s 16.9 ranked 24th among all postseason participants and slotted him three spots behind Kelly Olynyk and one spot ahead of Rajon Rondo.

Which is to say, this year’s number was a bit underwhelming and likely a product of the knee woes that hindered Walker. His PER was a rock-solid 20 over 56 regular-season games for Boston and he’s maintained a PER of 21 over the course of four All-Star seasons starting in 2016. Even in his two short playoff stints with Charlotte earlier in his career, Walker’s PER was at 18.7.

It suggests we didn’t get to see the full potential of Playoff Kemba this season. 

What went right for Walker in 2020

Walker’s arrival in Boston rinsed the bitter taste of the 2018-19 season out of the mouths of everyone inside the Auerbach Center. Walker bonded with fellow teammates Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown while trekking overseas to compete with Team USA.

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Walker was a menace before his trip to All-Star weekend, averaging 21.8 points per game for the first half of the season while shooting 38.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc. For someone who had never advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs, Boston’s march to the conference finals was the deepest run of his career.

 

What went wrong for Walker in 2020

Knee woes started in early 2020 and lingered straight through the bubble experience. Not even four months of downtime was enough to get Walker right.

The Celtics ramped him up slowly inside the bubble in hopes of having him at full health in the postseason, but he seemed to struggle as minutes piled up, particularly in Round 2 against Toronto. Walker shot just 31 percent beyond the 3-point arc in the playoffs and the Heat targeted him defensively while exploiting size mismatches during the East finals. 

Popping the bubble

Kemba Walker's regular-season 3-point shooting percentage.
38.1%
Kemba Walker's postseason 3-point shooting percentage.
31.0%

Early outlook for Walker for 2021

While Danny Ainge said that Walker does not require surgery, a likely abbreviated offseason won’t afford much downtime. The Celtics need the Walker we saw at the end of the 2019 calendar year if they’re going to contend in a souped-up Eastern Conference in 2021.

The knee will be in the spotlight for a player who will turn 31 next season and, even as he defers more to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics need Walker to be able to take over games when the younger players need a boost.

Walker has three years and $108 million remaining on his deal with Boston and the Celtics have to make sure that knee doesn’t become a lingering issue.