Few players in NBA history provide as much comedic relief as Antoine Walker.
And it makes sense. He was a goofy dude, with a funky-looking physique (more on that later), and he took a ton of shots (more on that, a well). And sometimes, those shots were highly unwarranted. Heck, never once in his 12-year career was his shooting efficiency (measured by true shooting) at or above league average.
But what if there was more to Toine than just jokes and perplexing shot selection? What if he served as a bridge between the old basketball regime and the future? And what if maybe his game represented one of the most unique player types the league has ever seen? Let’s find out.
(Sidebar: For the sake of simplicity, we will focus primarily on his 2001-02 season with the Boston Celtics).
Many people (myself included) view Rashard Lewis as the first full-time stretch four in NBA history. But nearly a decade before Lewis helped propel the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals, it was Walker who was starting at power forward and hoisting up threes like there was no tomorrow.
In 2001-02, his 9.8 threes per 100 possessions put him in the 98th percentile in 3-point attempts in the entire league (trailing only Ray Allen and Jason Williams). His affinity for three-point shooting made him the perfect player to pair with then Boston Celtics head coach Jim O’Brien – a long-time disciple of Rick Pitino (a coach who, among other things, had a reputation for prioritizing the three ball).
Critics like to point to Walker’s subpar three-point shooting percentages (34.4% in 2001-02) as a sign that he was misguided in taking all those shots. However, what those individuals fail to realize is the context surrounding those threes.
The early 2001-02 Celtics were a defensively-slanted team that relied on Walker and a young Paul Pierce to buoy their offense. A 34.4 percent Walker three-point shot is worth 1.03 points per possession. That translates to an offensive rating of about 103. And guess what? During that season, the Celtics as a team averaged an offensive rating of 103.4 (good for 18th in the NBA). So, the efficiency of a Walker three wasn’t that much of a deviation from their normal offense.
Another thing people often miss about Walker’s shooting is the types of shots he was taking. In 2001-02, 91 percent of his made threes were assisted. That means that he wasn’t just dribbling up the court and chucking up shots. He was catch and shoot taking jumpers within the flow of the offense.
Walker was one of the few players during that time (along with Reggie Miller) who would run in transition and locate himself at the three-point line.
Despite his burly build, Walker loved to get out and run in transition, both as a finisher (like in the clips above) and as an initiator. Despite boasting a top-5 defense, the Celtics finished 5th in pace in 2001-02 (being a good defensive team usually slows down your team’s overall pace).
Speaking of initiating, Walker was a really underrated passer. Take this clip, for instance. Here he receives the ball in the post and sees the double coming. But instead of making the pass to the now-open Kenny Anderson immediately, he waits until Aaron Williams turns his head to tag his man (so that he can’t rotate over as quickly), and when he does, he darts the ball right in there (too bad Anderson smoked the layup!).
In 2001-02, Walker placed in the 89th percentile in Ben Taylor’s Passer Rating metric (a statistic that attempts to estimate a player’s passing ability on an ‘approximately’ 1-10 scale), with a score of 6.8 (per Thinkingbasketball.net). For some perspective on how impressive that is for his position, the only power forwards/centers (as characterized by Basketball Reference) ahead of him that season were Robert Horry and Vlade Divac.
During his time, people tried to paint Walker as a bumbling neanderthal, but in reality, he was a highly cerebral basketball player. One who not only understood the mathematical advantage three-pointers provided, but could also map the floor and use his supreme confidence as a scorer/shooter to create looks for his teammates.
You see, even with his subpar efficiency numbers, defenses still reacted to Walker like he was a great scorer/shooter. And because of that, he was able to create open looks for his teammates that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to obtain (remember, outside of Pierce, the Celtics’ offensive personnel was pretty lackluster).
In this next clip, Walker drives past the slower Derrick Coleman, which triggers the defense collapsing in the paint, and leads to an open shot for Tony Battie.
(Sidebar No. 2: Teams would also try to intentionally run Walker off the three-point line, which he would counter by driving the closeout and attacking the scrambled defense.)
Another metric created by Taylor is Box Creation, which estimates how many shots a player created for their teammates per 100 possessions. According to this measure, Walker created 4.8 shots for his teammates per 100, good for the 82nd percentile in 2001-02.
Walker could shoot, drive, and kick just like a guard. However, the reason I say he’s the bridge between the past and present (and why I still think Lewis is still the poster child for the modern stretch forward) is because while he played like a modern forward, he was still built like a classical one.
He was a blend of modern and old school. He shot threes and attacked closeouts like the forwards we see in 2023. But he also played in the post, defended the post, and labored through screens like a typical 1990s/2000s power forward.
And while his body type makes his game less like today’s forwards than Lewis, Walker was able to do something Lewis never could. Thanks to his girth, Walker was able to occasionally operate as one of the very first small-ball centers. For his career, he spent 7% of his regular season minutes and 14% of his playoff minutes at the five (per Basketball Reference).
During the Celtics’ 2002 run to the Eastern Conference Finals, Walker spent 169 of his 703 (24 percent) playoff minutes at center. And despite his reputation as a bad/lazy defender, the Celtics’ actually held up really well. They had the third-best defense in the postseason that year, and that was with Walker as their de facto center 22% of the time.
(Sidebar No. 3: From watching him, I’d say that while he’s extremely stiff and immobile, he’s still able to hover around a neutral defensive impact thanks to his court mapping/IQ, strength, and sound hands).
And by playing Walker at the five, that allowed the Celtics to put more offense on the floor – because they didn’t have to waste a slot on the defense-only bigs that were commonplace of that era. Instead, they could give more minutes to more offensively-skilled guys like Rodney Rodgers, Tony Delk, and Erick Strickland. So, although they didn’t have great offensive personnel, Walker allowed them to make up for some of their shortcomings by putting more of their better offensive players on the floor at once.
Without a doubt, Walker was a flawed player. He was inefficient, took some shots he shouldn’t have, and struggled mightily to navigate screens and defend in space (which limited the Celtics’ ability to switch).
But he was also the perfect player in a lot of ways, at least for those early 2000s Celtics. His (and Pierce’s) volume shooting, scoring, and playmaking helped keep an otherwise uninspiring offense afloat. Meanwhile, his size and strength contributed to an elite defense (No. 5 in the regular season in defensive rating and No. 3 in the playoffs), and also enabled Boston to cheat a little when they needed more offense on the floor.
It’s okay to make fun of Walker’s silly comments or questionable shot attempts. But when you do it, do it from a place of understanding. A place of understanding that Antoine Walker was a very important piece of a very successful team and, more importantly, he was one of the most unique players the game has ever seen.