Walker’s a Winner

UConn star’s heart will be hard for NBA teams to overlook
Editor’s note: Pistons.com continues a 15-part series leading to the June 23 draft with a look at one of the possibilities for the Pistons’ pick at No. 8 in the first round, Connecticut guard Kemba Walker.

NBA scouts aren’t exactly sure if Kemba Walker is a point guard or a shooting guard in a point guard’s body – and a slight point guard’s body, at that. But they know he’s fearless and they know he’s a winner. In a draft where a common refrain is “no sure things,” that will take him a long way.

It’s already taken him to the top of the college basketball world. Jim Calhoun has had many talented teams in his 25 years at UConn and won national championships in 1999 with a group led by Rip Hamilton and again in 2004 behind two more future Pistons, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. No one suspected he’d win another one in 2011.

Expectations hadn’t been so low around Storrs in many years leading into the season. The Associated Press preseason poll had 38 teams listed ahead of UConn. It took Walker three days in Hawaii to change everyone’s perspective. He led the unranked Huskies to wins over Wichita State and poll heavyweights Michigan State and Kentucky to win the Maui Invitational, averaging 29.7 points.

That was just the appetizer for two more amazing tournament runs Walker would lead. Because UConn was the No. 9 seed in the 16-member Big East, the Huskies needed to win five games in five days to take the conference tournament. Walker put them on his narrow shoulders and enabled them to knock off DePaul, Georgetown, Pitt – that win on a Walker buzzer-beater – Syracuse and Louisville, averaging 26 points and cementing an NCAA tournament invitation that was still uncertain, or certainly not a favorable seed, heading into that whirlwind week.

The Huskies ripped off six more wins in the NCAA tournament, of course, Walker leading them past Kentucky (again) and Butler in the Final Four to give Calhoun his third NCAA title. There might still be some NBA general managers out there who wonder how Walker would fit with their teams, but there isn’t really anybody left who doubts he’ll find a home somewhere and thrive.

Could it be in Detroit? At first blush, another scoring guard would seem to rank low on the Pistons’ list of priorities for a team that already has Hamilton, Gordon, Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum.

But if Joe Dumars and his scouts see in Walker that rare charismatic leader whose talents will translate sufficiently well to the NBA to put him in position to lead, could they afford to pass him up?

“I know them pretty well – Ben, Rip and Charlie,” Walker said last week at the Chicago draft combine of the Pistons’ U-Connection. “That would be cool, to play with those guys.”

More on Kemba Walker

College: Connecticut

Size: 6-foot-1, 184 pounds

Age: 21 on draft night

The good: Tremendous speed and ballhandling skills allow Walker to create space and get to spots before help defenders can rotate. … Intangibles and will to win set him apart and enabled him to carry UConn team to 2011 NCAA title.

The bad: Skills might be best utilized playing off of the ball, but he’ll have matchup problems if he’s used primarily as a shooting guard. … Lacks consistent NBA 3-point range. … Shot 42 percent this season at UConn.

The skinny: With Rodney Stuckey, Rip Hamilton, Ben Gordon and Will Bynum on the roster, distributing minutes in the backcourt is already a challenge. Walker could go as high as No. 3 or could be available at No. 8 to the Pistons.

Gordon, a native New Yorker like Walker and a similarly fearless scorer, is a big believer in Walker’s heart and UConn pedigree. He followed Walker’s Big East and NCAA tournament runs and joined Hamilton and Villanueva in chartering a private jet to whisk them to the Final Four in Houston on a Pistons off day in Washington in early April.

“It was big-time to see some of the former UConn guys there,” Walker said. “It was just a lot of inspiration and extra motivation for us. Ben’s a good dude. He’s from Mount Vernon, not too far from where I’m at in the Bronx. I grew up watching Ben. He’s like a big brother.”

Though Stuckey is set to become a restricted free agent, Dumars has been adamant that he will be back next season. Drafting Walker probably would require a trade of either Hamilton or Gordon to justify adding another guard. But Stuckey’s versatility and ability to guard bigger shooting guards would make a Stuckey-Walker backcourt pairing a viable option – and, potentially, a dynamic one.

Walker actually allayed some concerns about his NBA future when he measured at 6-foot-1 in shoes and 184 pounds in Chicago – taller than some expected he would be. That makes him almost exactly the listed size of Isiah Thomas: 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. And his career seemed to turn out OK.

“Everybody’s been talking about my height my whole life,” Walker said. “It’s not a problem at all. There have been plenty of small guys in the NBA in the past. Teams are telling me, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ They’re telling me it won’t be a problem as long as I keep playing the way I’m playing.”

Walker’s speed and ballhandling allow him to beat defenders off the dribble and create the space that prevents shot-blockers from smothering him. More scorer than pure shooter, his crossover dribble gives him a weapon few NBA defenders will be able to contain consistently.

Walker is a level below an elite playmaker, but he did average 4.5 assists a game for UConn even though the Huskies clearly required heavy scoring from him to be win. Maybe his most impressive stats were his 5.4 rebounds a game, second on the team, and the 39 minutes a game he averaged in 16 Big East games. Walker played 35 minutes in UConn’s first-round blowout win over Bucknell in the NCAA tournament; in the final five March Madness games, he sat a total of four minutes.

“You go right down the list with some great, great basketball players, there’s been no one to ever have a season like Kemba,” Calhoun said the day Walker announced he was giving up his senior season at UConn to take his shot at the NBA. “And how he’s handled things is what you’d want each and every one of your players to do. He’s handled it with grace, humility, yet with a sense of confidence. He’s going to be missed. I’m starting to miss him now.”

Next: Marcus Morris