(photo cred: ESPN)
Place an emphasis on without.
When Danny Ainge lured Kemba Walker away from Charlotte, Cs fans everywhere rushed to YouTube to catch breakdowns of their new star in action. What would the All-Star guard bring to the table? Sure, his one-on-one scoring ability is well known, as is his talent for finishing amongst the trees. So it may surprise you to learn that Walker has the Celtics offense running smoothly due to his off-ball prowess.
The Celtics have many mouths to feed, each one deserving of a 3 course meal. Walker is one of them, along with the revived Gordon Hayward, emerging Jayson Tatum and improved Jaylen Brown. Therefore, Walker becoming a both a willing and wiley off-ball player could be the secret for sustaining a team with four players posting usage rates north of 20.
There are a handful of ways Brad Stevens is deploying Walker when the ball isn't in his hands. Sometimes Walker runs around screens as a distraction to allow Hayward and now Tatum to get their pick and roll reps in. This is rudimentary, however. Just about any guard can sprint through picks as a decoy.
Walker is doing something more. Whether it is slyly tugging defenders into unfavorable defensive assignments, freeing up big men for lobs, or using an array of cuts, UConn's finest is causing chaos without the ball. Let's dive in by looking at how the brainiac Stevens utilizes Walker to create easy at-rim attempts for teammates.
The Play: A Lob For Daniel Theis
Okay fine, this lob never happened. But it should have! During a small set with three guards, Hayward and Theis, Stevens decides to take advantage of his speedy, playmaking personnel. Walker lazily jogs to the paint, dragging the 6-foot-3 Collin Sexton with him. Then, Walker sets a back pick on Kevin Love which springs Theis for the alley-oop.
The problem: Smart mistimes the pass. Or perhaps he did not want to take the risk. As the season marches on and team chemistry grows expect this pass to be attempted. Regardless, Walker is often the focal point of defensive schemes. Smart, grab-happy screens like this result can result in high percentage scoring opportunities. This next play only exemplifies this further.
The Play: A Drive For Gordon
Do yourself a favor and stay glued to Walker, who begins this set as the ballhandler. As he gives up the ball to the already much improved passer Robert Williams, Walker runs across the paint. But wait, isn't this play designed for Hayward to also be in the paint? Won't Walker just clog up the lane for his buddy?
Wrong! Walker runs his defender, Sexton, into the would-be help defender Tristan Thompson. Now shift your eyes to Sexton's hands. He must literally push Thompson away to prevent the two from running into each other. This is a masterful display of basketball IQ by Walker. He neutralized the rim protector while forcing a guard to become the new protector versus the 6-foot-7 Hayward. Brilliant.
The Play: A DHO For Hayward
More savvy IQ and wileyness from Kemba. Walker moves quickly to bring the ball up the court and initiate the dribble handoff (DHO.) He completes the DHO then shoves Matthew Dellavedova out of the way to prevent him from switching onto Hayward. The Celtics want Cedi Osman to be the primary defender on Hayward during this play. Some handsiness from Walker and a helpful pick by Williams make this score for Hayward possible.
The Play: A Catch And Shoot Triple For Kemba
One of Kemba's favorite techniques for getting free without the ball is is v-cut. Essentially, it is a fundamental off-ball move weaponized by speedsters to set their man up one way before darting the other. On this occasion, Walker ditches Delly once more to set up an open 3-pointer. If this type of separation becomes routine then opposing defenses should be even more scared of a Boston offense that is rounding into shape
He also uses this technique to get rid of nagging defenders trying to stick to his every move. Take newcomer and defensive stud Matisse Thybulle for example. The rookie was assigned to Walker on the team's opening night. Tired of Thybulle's superb defending, Walker initiates his v-cut from a standstill. Slow to react, Thybulle committed a foul which sent Walker to the line.
The Play: A Backdoor Cut For Kemba
Here is a another diamond that remained in the rough. This play wonderfully demonstrates Walker's combination of start-and-stop agility and herky-jerkyness. He begins by bolting around a screen only to slow down, come to a complete halt and then burst again. The Sixers keep solid shape as Walker ends up running to the opposite wing.
Yet, Hayward sticks to the designed play instead of sensing that Walker is going to improvise. Knowing his defender, Josh Richardson, is a step behind Kemba darts towards the hoop on a backdoor cut. Chalk this non-pass by Hayward up to undeveloped team chemistry but, Walker had an easy layup if the pass gets made.
It is early yet, but Walker has spent more time this year coming off screens and playing without the ball more than any season before. Whether this is to create a backdoor opportunity for himself or a teammate, Walker is allowing one of the other talented scorers in that Celtics quartet to have the ball in his hands.
This sacrifice is probably something Walker has embraced. This is the first time he has a legitimate chance of seeing deep postseason action since he was at UConn. Still, Walker's sacrifice of touches must be rewarded. Smart has to the throw that lob to Theis so nerds like me can break it down and throw it on Twitter. More importantly, the nerds in the Celtics film room will break it down and give Walker the praise he deserves.
But in due time, this will happen. Missed chances like the one captured in the screenshot above will be realized as team chemistry grows. If you like the Celtics offense now, wait until you see them hooping in March. Until then, keep and eye out for what Walker does without the ball during Celtics games.