For the better part of eight seasons, Kemba Walker was the clear go-to guy for the Charlotte Hornets.
Now with the Boston Celtics, Kemba faces less of a burden. He leads a cast of strong supporting players as he returns to Charlotte for the first time as an opponent Thursday night.
Walker, a first-round pick of the then-Charlotte Bobcats in 2011, led the franchise in scoring over each of the last five seasons of his eight-year tenure and is the career points leader (12,009) for the organization. He averaged 19.8 points per game in 605 games with the Hornets, making three straight All-Star appearances from 2017-19.
Walker signed a four-year, $141 million max contract with the Celtics over the offseason.
“I get to see my mom,” Walker said of the return trip to Charlotte. “That’s the only thing I’m thinking about. Getting to see my family is what I’m looking forward to.”
Through his first six games with the Celtics, Walker is leading the team in scoring with 26 points per game. However, he isn’t doing it alone, evidenced Tuesday night when teammate Gordon Hayward exploded for a career-high-tying 39 points on 17-of-20 shooting in a 119-113 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Hayward hit all 16 of his shots inside the arc and added eight assists and seven rebounds. He is third on the Celtics with 20.3 points per game as Boston has won five straight since an opening night setback.
“He was aggressive going to the basket,” said coach Brad Stevens of Hayward. “He did a good job when they were guarding him with big guys. He did a good job when they were guarding him with small guys. He just kept making the right play over and over.”
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Walker added 25 in the contest, and Jayson Tatum chipped in 18. Tatum, in his third year, is averaging 21.3 points per game, second on the club.
Stepping up for the Hornets with Walker gone has been second-year guard Devonte’ Graham. Coming off the bench for Charlotte, Graham leads the team with 17.3 points per game, including a career-high 35 in a 122-120 overtime win over the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday.
Graham sank two of three from the free-throw line with 1.7 seconds remaining to ice the win, the Hornets’ third in a row. Charlotte had trailed by 19 in the contest.
“To continue to play this way, to be poised and unfazed, he’s grown right before our eyes,” Hornets coach James Borrego said of Graham. “I trust him, believe in him and I think that’s apparent. I think our guys do also. He’s a special player.”
Against Boston, Charlotte will be without swingman Nicolas Batum, who has been sidelined since fracturing his finger in the team’s season-opening win over the Chicago Bulls. Forward PJ Washington (left leg contusion) is probable.
For the Celtics, swingman Jaylen Brown (illness) is probable after missing the team’s last three games. Also probable are big men Daniel Theis (ankle) and Robert Williams (hip), while Enes Kanter (knee) has been upgraded to questionable.
Hornets guard Terry Rozier will face the Celtics for the first time after four seasons in Boston.