Celtics point guards evolve under Brad Stevens; is Kemba Walker next?

Celtics point guards evolve under Brad Stevens; is Kemba Walker next?

BOSTON — The personnel that Brad Stevens has to work with may change from year to year, but there has been one constant. 

Point guards in his system do well. Really well. 

Isaiah Thomas. Kyrie Irving. Terry Rozier when he was thrust into the role of a starter.

Heck, you can even go back to when Evan Turner was running the show for Stevens down the stretch in games as the primary playmaker, which led to him getting a four-year, $70 million deal from Portland (he has since been traded to Atlanta).

All played their roles well in Stevens’ system. 

Will Kemba Walker be next?

“I’ve always been a huge fan of his,” Stevens said. “Not just the way he plays; as a person, as a competitor. I got a chance to coach him one day already at the All-Star Game a few years ago. Just being around him and everybody that has coached him, he has all the stuff that the best have. He’s worked really hard to put himself in the position he’s in. We’re happy he’s here.”

Walker, a three-time All-Star who signed a four-year, $141 million contract with the Celtics earlier this month, comes to Boston with an established pedigree for scoring — similar to what Thomas and Irving brought to the table when they arrived in town. 

While all of them have their own style of play, there’s no denying the connection between their play as a Celtic improving from previous stops, and Stevens’ system, which has seemingly brought out the best in them.

With Thomas, he was acquired via trade from Phoenix in 2015 and his role — initially coming off the bench — was to be an instant-offense, go-get-buckets kind of player. 

An injury to Marcus Smart led to him being put in the starting lineup, and Thomas never looked back in ranking among the NBA’s top scorers for two seasons, which earned him a pair of All-Star nods. 

“We needed him (Thomas) to be a scorer and he loved it,” Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, told NBC Sports Boston. “He thrived under Brad’s tutelage.”

Irving arrived in Boston with a similar skillset, but the talent around him was better than the group that Thomas played with in Boston. Because of that, Irving’s game had to evolve. 

And statistically speaking, Irving did just that with his two best seasons shooting the ball from the field both coming while a Celtic. 

Last season, Irving set career highs in rebounds (5.0) and assists (6.9) per game. 

“He (Irving) needed to sacrifice some and let everyone else get involved and it wasn’t about him just being the primary scorer as much as it was with Isaiah,” Ainge said. “And now, Kemba’s probably in between there.”

Last season, Walker was named to the All-NBA Third Team after averaging a career-high 25.6 points per game, the fourth straight season he averaged 20 or more points.

While he has shown the ability to score at a high level, the one knock on Walker is he has yet to become an efficient scorer. In his eight NBA seasons, Walker has never shot better than 44.4 percent from the field.

That, along with him never averaging more than 6.1 assists per game, is in part due to the lack of talent that he has been surrounded by throughout his eight seasons in Charlotte, which led to just a pair of playoff appearances. 

And of the lottery (top-14) picks in Walker’s 2011 draft class (that includes Irving as well as new teammate Enes Kanter), Walker is the only one in the league every year since then to have never advanced past the first round of the playoffs. 

But the cast he’s surrounded by in Boston is a significant upgrade over the talent he played with in Charlotte. 

And he is joining a team that consistently focuses on deep playoff runs, something that has been more of a fantasy than reality in Walker’s basketball world up to this point in his career. 

But here in Boston, the 29-year-old finds himself dealing with a different kind of expectations, the kind that requires his game to evolve if they are to be met. 

In Charlotte, Walker was often the first, second and sometimes third option for the Hornets to get points. 

No longer will he be leaned upon to carry the offensive load for 30-plus minutes a night. 

Jayson Tatum has shown signs in his first two years of being a potential All-Star.

Jaylen Brown two years ago was Boston’s No. 2 scorer behind Kyrie Irving, and seemed to thrive as last season progressed into the role of an impact player off the bench. 

Gordon Hayward has been going all-out in workouts all summer here in Boston, and seems poised to get back to the Hayward we last saw in Utah a couple years ago, which made him one of the more sought-after free agents in 2017.

“We don’t have quite the same amount of depth, but we do still have a lot of guys who need the ball,” Ainge said. “But that’s what I like about Kemba. He can have the ball in his hands and create. He’s also a great cutter; moves well without the ball. He does a lot of the same things Isaiah does where he sprints off screens, off-the-ball actions. I think that’s going to be good for the rest of the guys.”

Walker understands that the role he’ll be called upon to play in order to win in Boston, will require him to adjust. 

“I’m looking forward to it,” he told NBC Sports Boston. “It’s something new. It’s not as big a burden on my back. It was like, I had to be perfect every night (in Charlotte) or I had to have a great game offensively. If not, it would be a struggle for us to win. With the personnel we have on this team, the way these guys can score … it’ll be different.

He added, “I love to score; don’t get it twisted. But whenever I have an opportunity to score I’m going to score. But when I draw defenders and see open guys, I’m going to get rid of that thing. So, I’m looking forward to kind of changing my game as well.”

And as we’ve seen from past point guards brought into Stevens’ system, that change has often been a change for the better. 

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Kemba Walker ready to adjust his role and share the scoring with his new Celtics teammates

Kemba Walker ready to adjust his role and share the scoring with his new Celtics teammates

Celtics point guard Kemba Walker admits that, in order for his new team to maximize its potential, he needs to alter his offensive approach. Fresh off inking his max contract, the eight-year veteran said he’s on board with deferring to the new talent that now surrounds him.

“[My role] does [need to change], and I’m looking forward to it,” Walker said on the latest Celtics Talk Podcast. "It’s something new. It’s not as big of a burden, I feel like, on my back. It’s like, I had to be perfect every night in Charlotte. Had to be. I had to have a great game, offensively, if not, it will be a struggle for us to win. Like I said, with the personnel, we have on this team and the way these guys can score, it’ll be different.”

The Celtics landed Walker on a four-year, $141 million deal. With the Hornets, Walker was forced to shoulder much of the scoring burden and sometimes even big outputs weren’t enough to will Charlotte to wins (Walker had seven games of 40-plus points last season and Charlotte lost six of them, the only win coming against Boston).

Walker ranked ninth in the NBA in usage rate last season at 30.8 percent. That was one spot ahead of ball-dominant Russell Westbrook and two spots ahead of Kawhi Leonard. Which is to say that Walker is used to finishing possessions but seems on board with giving it up more. Kyrie Irving ranked 17th in the NBA in usage at 28.6 last year.

Walker cited young players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as reasons he wanted to come to Boston and he’s eager to use his talents to get them scoring opportunities. A healthier Gordon Hayward is going to demand more possessions as well and the team can lean on his ball-handling skills, especially when Walker isn’t on the court.

Walker said he’s excited about the potential. 

"I think there will be a lot of space. I’m a willing passer as well. I’m very unselfish,” said Walker. "I love to score, don’t get it twisted. Whenever I have an opportunity to score, I’m going to score. But, when I draw defenders and see open guys, I’m going to get rid of that thing. I’m excited. I’m looking forward to kinda changing my game as well, just giving the ball up a lot more.”

Coming off a season in which Irving’s missteps as a leader contributed to friction with younger players, Walker’s arrival begs the question of whether he can maximize their talents. While he’s expressed a desire to help those players grow — while also suggesting that he yearns to learn from them and their playoff experiences -- Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge remains staunch that Walker simply needs to be the best version of himself.

"I don't really look for other people to draw out anything from anybody,” said Ainge. "I expect him to be at his best, that's all. Work hard and be who he is. He doesn't have to try to draw anything out from any of the other guys...It's not anybody's responsibility to draw the best out in every other player.”

Added Ainge: "I see Kemba as a good fit with anybody. He's a really good player. He's smart and is experienced and wants to win. He's accomplished a lot of things individually and he just really hasn't been able to accomplish the team goals since winning the national championship in college. But I think that's what he is hoping for. He's at the stage of his life where that's all that matters.”

Walker landed on the All-NBA third team this past season. He averaged a career-best 25.6 points per game but has shot just 41.8 percent from the floor from his career and 35.7 percent beyond the arc. The Celtics are hoping that with more skill around him, Walker can ratchet up his overall efficiency. He averaged 5.9 assists per game last season and that number could spike if Tatum, Brown, and Hayward elevate their offensive output this season.

It is, of course, easier to say you want to morph your game in July than it is to actually do it on the court in October. But Walker has repeatedly stressed a desire to win after limited playoff exposure in Charlotte. Given some of the losses on the defensive side of the ball, particularly in the frontcourt, it’s imperative that the Celtics play with high efficiency on the offensive end. Walker’s ability to maximize opportunities for himself and his teammates could be key in Boston’s success in the 2019-20 season.

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