Hornets' Kemba Walker becoming team's enduring anchor
Can the point guard cast a shadow equal to the owner's?
He usually sits in a chair near the team bench and when he does, he’s still the tallest person in the building. His choice of attire is often a pair of loose-fitting jeans, which means he’s still caught up in 1990s fashion, and no longer baggy basketball shorts, which he practically invented. He has won six NBA championships but nothing lately except the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Even at 51 and well past his prime, Michael Jordan casts an enormous shadow everywhere in basketball, even over the team he owns, which is not necessarily a compliment.
Well, maybe a clarification is in order: Nobody on the Charlotte Hornets will ever be bigger than the boss. But is it asking too much for the Hornets to have at least somebody on the roster who can divert a fraction of attention away from Jordan’s former greatness as a player? Can they have their own star, someone the Hornets can identify with apart from Jordan?
Well, after six years of Jordan ownership rule and arguably for the first time in their 12-year history, perhaps they do. At this rate, guard Kemba Walker, six feet of blur, could become only the second player in franchise history to make the All-Star team. And the big difference between Walker and Gerald Wallace, who was the first, is staying power. Wallace was gone from Charlotte within two years and his career began to drift as well. Walker is just touching his prime and is clearly the anchor on a developing team that’s starting to gain traction among the elite in the East.
It’s been a long dry spell for Jordan and the Hornets in their attempt to sit at the big-boy table. Usually, such membership requires a team to suit up at least one player who forces the opposition to game-plan for him. In the past, it was rare for any Hornets’ player to see a double team. Nobody was that dangerous, that frightening, that imposing. And the reasons for that are multifold.
The Hornets simply didn’t draft well enough, were too powerless to pull the trigger on a blockbuster trade that would reinvent the franchise, nor could they steal an A-list free agent. They never had a player good enough to be known on a one-name-only basis, the true measure of stardom and visibility. No Kobe, no Shaq, no KG or KD or CP3. The best player on the team never stirred imaginations or sold jerseys.
It wasn’t all due to self-inflicted wounds. They had crummy luck, too. They finished runner-up in the Dwight Howard draft. Hello, Emeka Okafor. They once drafted Adam Morrison, the nation’s biggest scorer. He went bust in Charlotte. And look, this is no shade thrown at Michael-Kidd Gilchrist, who has turned into a useful Swiss army knife for this team, but he was the booby prize in a draft where Anthony Davis went one spot ahead.
The most memorable and beloved players in Hornets history were members of the original incarnation: Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, Muggsy Bogues, etc., all of whom are now ghosts in the reworked history books belonging to the relocated New Orleans Pelicans.
Yet there are serious indications that the team finally found its heavyweight, someone who’s 185 pounds and requires a stepladder to reach the rim.
“I’ve put in a lot of work to become the player I am today,” he said. “Hopefully I can just continue to get better. And that will be reflected on how often we’re winning. I want to be the player who does everything he can to put his team in position to win. Everything else will take care of itself.”
“He’s been tremendous. He has what you look for in a star.”
Teammate Marvin Williams
We all saw this coming. Walker isn’t a different player than a year ago; he’s a more improved version in almost every way. More efficient shooter (41 percent from deep), crisper passer, a more caffeinated defender in the passing lanes. He dropped 40 points on Kyle Lowry and the Raptors a few weeks ago. He’s averaging 25 for the month and as a scorer is becoming more of a night-after-night threat.
“He’s been tremendous,” said teammate Marvin Williams. “He has what you look for in a star.”
As the Hornets begin in earnest to maintain a sense of belonging in the upper-half of the East, they’ll need more of the same from Walker and he appears to be equipped to supply it. In the past, the Hornets routinely caved in tight games because they lacked hero-ball candidates. Not so now; Walker is fearless in those situations and demands the ball. He’ll go strong to the hoop and challenge centers at the rim, and his three-point shooting is now lethal enough to stretch defenses.
Walker is fifth in scoring among point guards at 24.7 and fifth in 3-point shooting. He’s still not the pass-first point guard the Hornets could use in certain situations; this mindset is likely a byproduct of his college days at UConn, where Walker was forced to carry the team to the national championship. Learning to create more for his teammates and make them better remains a process at work, yet they remain enamored by Walker and appear to enjoy playing alongside him.
“He fits in to what we’re trying to do here,” said Williams. “His leadership and his example are good for our players. we’re in a stage where we’re trying to take the next step as a team, and he’s taking that next step as a player.”
It’s all expected to happen in due time for the Hornets, certainly not overnight. After starting the season 6-1, three of their next four losses were to the Cavs, Raptors and Grizzlies, all established winners and teams the Hornets aspire to follow. Until they capture more of those pelts, the Hornets will remain one rung below the top. Next up are the Spurs and another chance for Charlotte to announce its arrival.
“We can compete with anybody as long as we limit our mistakes,” Walker said. “We play in spurts a little too much. We just got to be better.”
If all goes well, the Hornets will be a major player in the East come spring and Walker will represent them in New Orleans at the All-Star Game, which would give an improving franchise a much-needed dose of credibility.
“I don’t have any control over being an All-Star,” he said. “That’s on the coaches and fans. I’m just trying to win games. I would love to be a part of it, of course. But I focus on winning games. That’s my main goal.”
As it should. The more the Hornets win, the more they distance themselves from their rather bland history and also extend their playoff appearances to three times in the last four years. They’ve still yet to win a playoff series, but first things first. Baby steps.
Win games, produce an All-Star, secure home-court advantage and make news in late April. That’s the formula to gain respectability in the East and to get the approval of an owner who desperately needs, and probably wants, to shrink in status inside his own building.
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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