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BOSTON — Kemba Walker scrunched up his face in disbelief before the reporter could even clarify his point.
“I’m always at the top of the league in taking charges,” Walker protested, taking umbrage at the suggestion that one might not have known, watching from afar, all the little ways that Walker impacts the game, including his charge-taking acumen.
Yes, Walker finished third in charges taken in each of the past three seasons, drawing a total of 79 charges in that span. He sits third in charge takes early in the 2019-20 season but is on pace to shatter his three-year average of 26.3 having drawn five whistles through six games this year.
So, Walker is eager to clarify that defense has long been in his toolbox.
“High school, earlier even, I’ve always been a charge-taker,” said Walker. “At one point in my career, I was really like a high-energy defensive guy. That’s just what I was until I really started to develop offensive skills.
"Defense was something that I did for a very long time. Taking charges, it’s something that I’ve been doing for a very very very very long time, man. It’s just a part of this game, it’s a part of winning. Sacrificing your body, sacrificing yourself. For me, I want my teammates to see me do things like that. I want them to know that I want to win. And I want them to know they can do it as well.”
Walker is understandably regarded as one of the NBA’s elite offensive players. His ability to score has helped him become a three-time All-Star and landed him on the All-NBA third team last season.
But watching him on a nightly basis, you gain a greater appreciation for the little ways that Walker impacts the game, defensively. What he gives up in size, he’s trying to make up in effort, often disrupting with his speed and ability to get to the right spots, which helps him draw those charges.
Noted new teammate Enes Kanter: “People don’t see all the little things that Kemba does to help winning. But we see it.”
No one is making a case for Walker on an All-Defense team. Boston’s on/off numbers this season hammer home the fact that they are a decidedly better defensive team when Walker is on the bench. Boston owns a team-worst defensive rating of 108.2 in Walker’s 208 minutes of floor time and it plummets to a team-best 84.1 in the 80 minutes when he’s off the court.
Some of that is a small sample size that will stabilize a bit moving forward. Last season in Charlotte, the Hornets had a defensive rating of 111.8 with Walker on the court but that was slightly below their season average (112). Alas, the Hornets off-court defensive rating was a team-best 108.4 without Walker.
What the offense gains with Walker often offset any defensive dip. But one thing is for certain, Walker is trying hard to make an impact. A few numbers to consider:
That’s what Walker’s five most-frequently defended opponents are shooting against him (6-for-24) this season, according to the NBA’s matchup data. Fred VanVleet mustered two points against Walker but was 0-for-5 shooting in six minutes of matchup time in Boston’s home-opener. R.J. Barrett is 2-for-9 for 6 points against Walker in two meetings this season. Elfrid Payton went scoreless with Walker defending him for a total of 5:40. When Walker avoids fouling, he makes opposing guards work for their points. Credit, too, coach Brad Stevens for finding matchups where Walker can thrive, a luxury when paired with the likes of Smart, Gordon Hayward, and Jaylen Brown on the perimeter.
159.7 deflections / 92.7 steals per season
Walker has averaged 159.7 deflections over the past three seasons, ranking just outside the top 10 among all players 6-4 and under. Players might take advantage of his size when shooting over him but he’s a disruptor in passing lanes. He’s on pace to top his three-year average this season in Boston while averaging two deflections per game, which is fourth on the team behind defensive maven Marcus Smart and the long-armed duo of Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams. Walker is also averaging 1.2 steals per game the past three seasons and has twice ranked in the top 15 in total thefts during his NBA career.
5.7 rebounds per game
For a stretch early in the season, Walker led the Celtics in offensive rebounds. He’s also grabbing a career-high 5.7 boards overall, and his total rebound percentage is up 130 percent over his career average this year. Walker has a way of sticking his nose in the land of giants, particularly at key times, and somehow emerging with the ball. He chalks up some of those offensive caroms this year to luck but his instincts chasing defensive boards are excellent and needed because Boston’s already undersized bigs are routinely tasked with simply getting a body on the 7-footer they’re defending.
Ultimately, the Celtics can live with the challenges an undersized player like Walker presents if that player is a willing defender. To his credit, Walker isn’t looking for the rest of the league to take note of what he’s doing — so long as his teammates notice his effort.
"I could care less what people think of me,” said Walker. "I’m a competitor. I want to do anything possible to win. For me, I know that I have to be solid on that end for this team to win. Especially as a leader. I want these guys to know that.
"I try to lead by example, basically. That’s what I want to do. I want to lead by example. There’s no way I could tell somebody to do something if I’m not doing it. That’s the kind of guy I am.”
Grant Williams, who grew up a Hornets fan in Charlotte, sees a difference in the way Walker is embracing his defensive role in Boston.
"He’s allowed to play more freely now. He understands that he doesn't necessarily have to score 40 points to keep us in the game,” said Williams. "I feel like he’s playing with more joy, more passion, and also just enjoying laying his body on the line.”
Confirmed Walker: "That’s what it’s about, that sacrifice. Helping your team win any way possible.”
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