How Kemba Walker stacks up against recent Celtics point guards

Sam Cohn
July 03, 2019 - 12:37 pm

When it became clear Kyrie Irving would not be returning to Boston for a third season, the outlook of the Celtics looked pretty bleak. It didn’t take long before rumors began to swirl and before we knew it, the Celtics went from having no clear guy to command the offense to picking up one of the best point guards in the league. So, how does Kemba Walker compare to previous Celtic point guards like Rajon Rondo, Isaiah Thomas, and Kyrie Irving?

Before we decipher who they were, we first have to lay the groundwork for what makes a good point guard. For starters, the point guard must be a good leader. Without leadership skills, a team can dismantle pretty quickly. A truly dominant point guard generally has a pass-first mindset. It’s essential to have a high basketball IQ and good court vision. The point should have a good handle on the ball and be able to take defenders one-on-one. A willing ability to consistently shoot the ball or drive to the basket can create space on the perimeter, giving the guard the upper-hand. Lastly, a good point guard has to be able to defend other good point guards — it only makes sense. 

Rajon Rondo’s style of play put him with the likes of Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, and Jason Williams. Rondo’s next-level court vision paired with exceptional ball handling made him a serious threat at the helm of a championship caliber team. Finding seams in a defense and lethal ball fakes were always a strong point. 

His defensive presence was second-to-none. Rondo was a pest defensively and the numbers show for it. He’s racked up just under 1,500 career steals through 14 seasons in the league. Former teammate Brian Scalabrine praised Rondo as having the best basketball IQ of anyone he’d ever played with based on the way he can read an opponent.

Sure, Rondo shot 26% from beyond the arc in ‘07-’08 but that didn’t matter because he was surrounded by three All-Stars in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. He drew so much attention at point guard that it freed up the wings and short corner for his teammates. 

The Kentucky point guard checks off each box except a consistent jump-shot. Granted, he didn’t need one considering the guys he played with, but it would have been a nice cushion to trust his jumper. 

Isaiah Thomas has easily been the most likeable guy to run the Celtics offense in recent years. At 5-foot-9, picked last in the draft, he was almost relatable. Thomas was never an exceptional defender, mainly because of his size disadvantage, but he played with more heart than anyone on the court. 

Scoring, however, was never a problem for Thomas in Boston. Remember his 53-point playoff performance against Washington in 2017? He had a consistent 3-point shot that could rise over bigger defenders, he could work his way into the lane to finish under the hoop, and his handle kept defenders honest so he could pull up from mid-range. The ability to score from all three levels made him dangerous. He also was an unbelievable closer. 

Thomas wasn’t surrounded by any all-time greats but his solid passing definitely made his teammates better, averaging six assists per game during his tenure in Boston. He was an outstanding scorer as well as an above-average passer and ball handler. His defensive abilities were lacking but that comes with the territory of being short in a tall man’s game. 

Boston’s most recent departed point guard was Kyrie Irving. Irving’s offensive style of play makes him arguably the most exciting player to watch in the NBA and an exceptional closer. The way he can handle the ball and shift through a defense to create a sliver of space is otherworldly. He’s a high volume scorer at all three levels. It’s nearly impossible to pin his layup. It’s nearly impossible to block his Kobe-esque, mid-range turnaround jumper. It’s incredibly difficult to be in his face enough to disrupt his three. Irving’s scoring ability can’t be undersold and a major part of it is thanks to his high basketball IQ.

“I’ve been playing basketball a lot longer than some of these people analyzing the game,” Irving told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. “I’m an actual genius.”

He can score at will and is incredibly smart playing with young guys who really want to learn; what could go wrong? When he wanted to, he could hold his own defensively on the ball. He wasn’t a pass-first point guard but he could always find the open man and his ability to score at will kind of made up for that. 

The only thing holding him back was who he was as a person on the floor. It doesn’t take anything away from his greatness, but he was not a leader. Kyrie checks off enough of each box to be considered a very good point guard except for the one about being a leader. Not only did he not lead, he was a major contributor to the divided Celtics locker room of 2018-19. The team generally conformed to his slowed pace style and just stayed out of his way. Thus, the Celtics never really played to their full potential. 

Kemba Walker is the next man up. The next man to take the reins in Boston. It’s important to note he’ll be grazing unfamiliar territory, which could take some getting used to. Walker has spent his entire career in Charlotte. Since 2011, his rookie season, the organization has rebranded more times than they’ve won a playoff series. He’s never been around a very good team, putting a lot more pressure on Walker. 

Charlotte hasn’t proven to be a contender but Walker has proven himself worthy to play under the bright lights with a championship caliber team. Last season he averaged 25.6 points per game, compared to Irving’s 23.8, and earned a starting spot in the all-star game. 

He has a shifty ability to cut through the lane and finish around the rim in traffic or let it fly from beyond the arc with some consistency. At 6-foot-1, he’s bigger than Thomas and slightly smaller than Irving, which hasn't proven to be a huge red flag for him. While effort won't be in question, he shouldn't be heavily relied upon as a strong defender. Walker has been praised for a strong understanding of finding his spots and reading mismatches. Most importantly, he has a history of making guys around him better. 

Walker is comparable to each of his three predecessors in different ways. He has a strong knowledge of the X’s and O’s of the game like Rondo, he is a pure scorer and can knock down shots in the clutch like Irving, and he’s a good leader and locker room guy like Thomas. Is he perfect? No. But he definitely has a chance to be something special if he clicks with the guys around him. 

One major glaring difference for him will be the frontcourt he has to work with. Rondo had Kevin Garnett and Thomas and Irving both shared the floor with Al Horford. Walker is lacking an All-Star in his front court, which could hold the team back as a whole his first season.

It’s still early, but Walker is proving he’s a likeable guy. Granted, it’s hard to be worse than spring 2019 Kyrie in that category, but his piece for The Players' Tribune speaks volumes to his focus. 

“I’m a leader in my own way. I’m never going to shout anyone off the court, or get overly negative. It’s not my style,” said Walker. “But what I do is I take pride in making my teammates better — I’m that lead by example type. I like to keep it direct.”

Rajon Rondo, Isaiah Thomas, and Kyrie Irving were three very different players that had success in different ways, with different challenges, surrounded by different guys. Kemba Walker has a high IQ, he’s a scoring phenom, he can make big plays in the clutch, and he’s a good leader surrounded by young assets, so based on recent history, Walker just might be a pretty good fit in Boston.