Kemba Walker: Heart of the City

By Sam Perley

It’s almost 7 p.m. on June 23, 2011 at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. The annual NBA Draft is just about to begin and projected top-10 pick, Kemba Walker, and his supporters are anxiously awaiting for the event to unfold. Fresh off winning a National Championship just two months earlier, the nation’s second-total leading scorer and reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player patiently waits as eight names are periodically read off by then NBA commissioner David Stern before he makes his way to the podium once more.

The chatter in the room abruptly dies down as Stern leans into the microphone and gets ready to make another young basketball player’s dreams come to fruition.

“With the ninth pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, the Charlotte Bobcats select…Kemba Walker from the University of Connecticut,” announces Stern as cheers and jubilation fill the room for the New York City native.

A smile breaks out on Walker’s face and he arises, extending hugs and thank you’s to friends and family. Quickly adorned with some fresh attire of his new team, Walker heads to the stage, climbs the steps to shake Stern’s hand and pose for pictures, all while wiping away a couple of tears. It’s an understandable display of emotion for a player that has long been defined by his immense heart and love of the game.

“Right now, it’s a surreal feeling. This is my dream. I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment and it’s finally here. When I went to Charlotte to work out with those guys, it was a great feeling. I left there and I felt good. I met Michael Jordan and coach [Paul] Silas and I felt good,” said Walker moments later in an interview with ESPN. “Now that I’m with Charlotte, I’m going to try and bring a winning attitude. I’m going to work extremely hard to get better. I’m not 6-3, 6-4 but I got a big heart and that’s it.”

“It’s not that he can’t make it at that size. I tend to be on a guy like Kemba Walker that’s got a tremendous heart. He’s an outstanding prospect,” said college basketball analyst, Jay Bilas, on the ESPN broadcast shortly after Walker’s selection.

It’s been nearly six years now since Stern made that announcement to the NBA world, one that changed both Walker and the Charlotte Hornets forever. Between players, coaches and even the team’s nickname, much has changed since then for the Hornets, but Walker’s passion and competitive drive have stayed as constant as ever. While there were questions about the 6-1 Walker’s physical limitations when he entered the league, there was never any debate about his heart and work ethic, factors that are now paying dividends with his first NBA All-Star selection.

Currently the longest-tenured player on the Hornets roster, Walker’s time in Charlotte has been littered with highs and lows. Having been a part of two Final Fours and a National Championship squad at the University of Connecticut, Walker’s lockout-shortened rookie NBA season ended with just seven wins. It took two more years before he made his playoff debut, which ended abruptly with a first-round sweep at the hands of the defending NBA champion Miami Heat in 2014.

Numerous injuries to the Hornets roster over the course of the 2014-15 NBA campaign, including an 18-game absence for Walker because of midseason knee surgery, forced the team to take a bit of a step back in his fourth year. The Hornets rebounded last year though, putting together a 48-win campaign and pushing the Miami Heat to the brink of elimination in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

From the very beginning of this season, though, something seemed different about Walker. He exploded out of the gates thanks largely to a noticeably-improved three-point shot, a byproduct from countless hours in the gym over the summer. Maybe it was a renewed sense of confidence, a chip on his shoulder from just missing last year’s All-Star Game or possibly the sting from the playoff series loss still lingering. Whatever the reason has been, Walker has boasted career highs in scoring, field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, effective-field- goal percentage, field goals made per game and three-pointers made per game so far this season.

“We’ve come a long way from my rookie year. We had some really down years,” recalled Walker. “I’ve worked really hard to try and become a better player each and every year in this league. I know there’s been a lot of doubt about me coming up in this league, but like I said, I just try to go out and give it my all. I would have never thought that I’d be an All-Star in this league, so to finally have my name called, it’s really cool.”

Ironically, Walker learned he was named a reserve to the Eastern Conference squad while the Hornets were on a road trip to play the New York Knicks, not too far from his childhood residence in the Bronx.

“It’s pretty cool. I do wish I was back home in Charlotte right now, but this is where I’m from, this is where I grew up at,” said Walker moments after the reveal on Jan. 26. “To be here [in New York City] when I heard the news, of course it was pretty special as well.”

Walker’s teammates, most of whom watched TNT’s announcement of the All-Star reserves on Jan. 26 in another part of their New York City hotel before storming into his room to offer congratulations, were eager to shower praise on the 26-year-old at shootaround the following morning.

“I couldn’t be more excited for him,” said Marvin Williams. “He’s worked so hard. Ever since I stepped foot in Charlotte a couple of years ago, I’ve watched him every single day work towards this. I’m glad his dream, I’m sure, is coming true.”

Marco Belinelli, who is in his first season playing with Walker, added, “I’m really happy for him. I think [this recognition] is really important for the Hornets organization. He really deserved it. He’s an unbelievable player [and] a great guy who works hard everyday.”

Hornets head coach Steve Clifford believes Walker’s remarkable season has less to do with one single, sudden change, but really rather a result from years of ongoing development.

“I would say just it’s a continuation of his shooting mechanics that he worked on hard with [assistant coach Bruce Kreutzer] two years ago. Again, his pick-and-roll game and his finishing that he does with [assistant coach Steve Hetzel]. A lot of times, people talk about guys working on their weaknesses, but it’s also important if you watch the best players, their strengths usually become bigger strengths and that’s what he’s done,” said Clifford, who is in his fourth season coaching Walker.

In addition to the All-Star Game itself, Walker will also be one of eight participants in the NBA’s Three-Point Contest, a competition that has not featured a Charlotte Hornets player since 1998. Currently owning one of the highest made three-pointer totals of any player this season (149 through Feb. 15, good for eighth-most in the NBA), Walker’s meteoric rise to one of the league’s premier long-distance shooters has been staggering to say the least.

Just two years ago, Walker shot a career-low 30.4 percent from three-point range, a mark that ranked him tied for 141st place out of 152 qualified NBA players. That number spiked to a then-career-high 37.1 percent last season and up to 39.5 percent this year - an extraordinary overall improvement based on where he was during the 2014-15 campaign.

“I’m honored that I even have the opportunity to be a part of [the Three-Point Contest]. It’ll be fun. Honestly, never would I ever thought I’d be in the Three-Point Contest,” said Walker with a smile after Hornets practice on Feb. 6.

When opposing coaches were probed on Walker’s play over the course of this season, the responses remained consistent across the board.

“The guy is playing at such a high-level every night. The reason why he’s an All-Star player is because he does it consistently every night. He doesn’t have a lot of off nights. He brings energy, he brings enthusiasm, passion to the game and I’m sure [Steve Clifford] loves that about him,” said Washington Wizards Head Coach Scott Brooks.

“We’re talking about a player that has improved every single year. He had a terrific playoff series last year. Usually that happens in this league, you start to enter your prime when you come off a great playoff performance, your confidence grows. He’s dynamic, he’s a much-improved finisher at the rim,” chimed in two-time NBA Champion Head Coach Erik Spoelstra, who has faced Walker a total of 32 times while at the helm of the Miami Heat.

“Just talking to coaches, he has gained an incredible amount of respect in this league in the last four years,” Clifford said following the team’s home win over Portland on Jan. 18. “I had a guy say to me the other day ‘I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a point guard improve more than he has.’ He’s a terrific player.”

Walker has also caught the eye of Tyronn Lue, Head Coach of the reigning NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers.

“He’s having a great season, each year he gets better and better. He’s a tough cover all around. The biggest thing is he’s improved his three-point shooting so that makes it a lot tougher to guard [him]. We know with his ball-handling ability he can get anywhere on the floor that he wants to,” added Lue, an 11-year veteran NBA player himself.

Arguably the deepest position in the NBA, the abundance of talented point guards in the league right now is as widespread as it’s ever been. Like Walker, many current elite players at the position also took a longer time to develop. Golden State’s Steph Curry (four years), Boston’s Isaiah Thomas (five years) and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry (eight years) are just some of the league’s top point guards who didn’t make their All-Star debuts until later on in their careers. Walker sits somewhere in the middle of this group, making the first of hopefully many more All-Star appearances in his sixth NBA season.

Having a player of Walker’s ability undoubtedly sets a tone not only with his teammates but also within the Hornets organization itself. Expectations are rightfully higher and there is always room for improvement according to Walker, regardless of whether the team wins or loses. It’s a relentless and obsessive mindset that can’t necessarily be developed over time (unlike his on-court play), but rather one that has been engrained in Walker ever since he first picked up a basketball. 

They say “champions are made when nobody is watching,” - a fitting description of Walker’s past summer in Charlotte. All day, every day, Walker was in the Hornets practice facility perfecting his game, organizing player-only workouts and doing anything else it took to get that extra edge. Along with his coaches, a handful of teammates and no media or press, the Summer of Walker allowed the Hornets guard to focus solely on basketball with extremely minimal distractions.

“I want to get better. I think I always get better. I think that’s one thing I try and pry myself on is getting better every year,” said Walker at Hornets Media Day in September. “I’ve been working hard to get better. I want my shooting percentages to go up even more. I think I’m very capable of that. Especially with the guys we have on this team - they definitely do a great job helping me get open shots,” he added while also alluding to some seemingly unbeknownst, impending improvements at the time.

As the leader and face of the organization, Walker knows the Hornets’ success will likely hinge on his play, much like it does with any other star player in the league. He takes this responsibility extremely seriously and is often times unfairly hard on himself after losses no matter how well he performs. It might be difficult to watch sometimes, but it’s a mentality teams love to see in their franchise player.  

Charlotte has had players in the past who hated losing to the extreme. Walker certainly falls into that category although was really the first in quite some time to be vocal about not only how much he personally despised losing, but also how it can’t be the standard for the organization. It’s what convinced Al Jefferson to join the team in 2013 and certainly influenced others like Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams to resign this past summer. Not many NBA players like losing but few have been as forthright in doing whatever needs to be done to avoid it at all costs. 

Another thing that makes Walker so special and endearing to the Charlotte fans though is that he truly is a homegrown talent – somebody who the team and city has had right from the beginning of his career. Not since Baron Davis in 2002 has Charlotte had an All-Star player that was also drafted by the organization. Davis’ potential for additional All-Star appearances with Charlotte was unexpectedly cut short, however, after the franchise relocated to New Orleans just a few months after his All-Star debut.

In addition to Davis, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning are the only other players to be drafted and named All-Stars with the Hornets organization, both of whom have cemented themselves amongst the franchise’s most iconic representatives. It’s a group that Walker has already firmly entrenched himself with even at this relatively early portion of his career.

At the rate he’s currently going, Walker will finish this year with the third-highest single-season scoring average in franchise history (22.5 points), trailing only Glen Rice’s 1996-97 campaign (26.8 points) and Kelly Tripucka in 1988-89 (22.6). He recently moved into second place on the team’s all-time scoring list and barring any unforeseen circumstances will likely pass Dell Curry for the top spot at some point during the 2018-19 season. Walker is also on pace for roughly 219 made three-pointers this year, which would be the second-highest single-season total ever by a Charlotte player behind only Jason Richardson in 2007-08 (243).

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Walker’s All-Star play this season is the overall distinction that comes with it. He might not receive this particular honor every year for the rest of his professional career, but from now until the day he retires, he’ll forever be “NBA All-Star Kemba Walker.” It’s certainly a threshold not many players in the league ever reach and also something that can never be taken away from him.

"Oh man, I don't know, I don't know. It definitely has to be up there,” said Walker on where his All-Star nomination ranks in terms of personal career achievements. “I mean, this is a special class right here to be an All-Star in the NBA. I don't think anybody would have thought when I was coming in the league that I would get this accomplishment. This is special. I don't know where I would rank it but it's definitely high on the list."

“I don’t know if this year is his best year. I thought last year was a really special year for him. He should have made All-Star, but he finally made it this year. It’s well overdue,” said former teammate and current Philadelphia 76ers player Gerald Henderson. “He deserves everything that’s coming his way.”

Knowing Walker, he would selflessly trade all the individual accolades and awards in a heartbeat if it meant his team would be that much more successful in terms of wins and losses. For now though, one of the smallest players on the court has earned the right to shine on the NBA’s biggest stage at All-Star Weekend. 

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