Donning the Red, White and Blue, Walker Eyeing His Own Dream Team

By Sam Perley, hornets.com

It’s an early Thursday afternoon on the UNLV practice court out in sunny, hot Las Vegas, NV. Nearly 30 of the country’s best basketball players have been brought together for a three-day minicamp, officially setting in motion preparations for two major international competitions in 2019 and 2020. 

A line begins forming just outside the three-point arc, where Clippers forward, Tobias Harris, kicks things off by knocking down a lengthy shot. Two-time Hornets All-Star Kemba Walker is right behind him with another long-distance make. Then, it’s Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, Milwaukee Bucks guard Khris Middleton and reigning-MVP James Harden of the Houston Rockets all following suit. 

Nearly seven years after his professional career began, Walker is right where he’s worked so hard to be – amongst the nation’s (and world’s) elite players. He is currently vying for a roster spot on next year’s FIBA World Cup squad and eventually, the U.S. Olympic Team, which will compete the following summer. 

Qualifying for either trip to China or Japan, respectively, will be challenging for Walker, but simply being on the short list for consideration is a huge accomplishment in itself. 

“It’s exciting. [I’m] getting a chance to compete with the best,” said Walker when asked about his thoughts on the minicamp. “See guys that I haven’t seen in a long time. A lot of these guys are my friends, so whenever I get a chance to link up with them, it’s always a good time.”

One of those friends just so happens to be Harris, who like Walker, is also a New York native. Both were first-round picks in 2011 and grew up competing against each other on the local grassroots circuits. 

“Me and Tobias have known each other – I’m older than him – but since we were really young. We played against each other growing up, all the AAU tournaments in the city. I’ve known that kid for a long time.”

Other point guards named to the minicamp roster include Steph Curry (Golden State), Kyrie Irving (Boston), Kyle Lowry (Toronto), Damian Lillard (Portland), Isaiah Thomas (Denver), John Wall (Washington) and Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City). Ultimately, 12 players will be chosen for each tournament, although injuries and withdrawals could and likely will factor into the selection process.  

If Walker does indeed make the 2019 World Cup team, he’d be the first Charlotte player to represent Team USA at this competition since Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson both won gold back in 1994. Baron Davis also played in 2002, although the Hornets were already on their way to New Orleans at that point. 

As it stands, Emeka Okafor is currently the only player in franchise history to ever make the U.S. Olympic Team, grabbing a bronze medal in Athens, Greece in 2004. It’s certainly an exclusive club that Walker would someday love to join. 

“That would be a dream come true. Growing up watching the Olympics, all the great teams, who’s played for Team USA. It would be an honor,” Walker says.

Like many American players, Walker’s motivation to represent his country started with the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team, famously dubbed the ‘Dream Team.’  This collection of athletes, which easily rolled to gold in Barcelona, was ultimately comprised of 11 future Basketball Hall-of Famers. This prominent bunch included Hornets majority owner, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone.  

“The Dream Team was crazy,” said Walker. “Probably one of the better teams, of course. That was a great team to watch and one of the reasons why I want to play for Team USA.”

Now at the helm of USA Basketball is San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich, who is taking the reins from Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski. The five-time NCAA Champion had led the squad since 2005, winning three Olympic gold medals, two World Cup titles and a bronze at the 2006 FIBA Championships.  

“It’s definitely different,” Walker said on the coaching change. “I’m a huge Pop fan. I think all of us are big Pop fans. We love the way he coaches. We know what he’s done for the game of basketball. It’s exciting to be a part of this.”

Walker broke into a big grin when asked about whether or not former-Spur, now-Hornet point guard Tony Parker, had given him any advice on playing for Popovich, who is widely known for his tough, no-nonsense demeanor. 

“Ha, no,” he said smiling. “Both are just two great people. Tony is good to be around – I’ve hung out once with him before. Good guy. I’m looking forward to learning from him.”

Spotting Walker on the UNLV hardwood isn’t the easiest of tasks as Team USA has somewhat ironically given him a number 23 jersey instead of the traditional 15 he wears with the Hornets. Like his boss and also the most famous wearer of the 23 did before, Walker is hoping to proudly represent the United States on the biggest stage someday soon.