November 20, 2014, published on SBNation.com
Emanuel “Book” Richardson’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing.
Why would you let Kemba Walker go to UConn? He’s too small. He’s never going to play.
Richardson, Walker’s former AAU coach with the New York Gauchos, had similar reservations. When he first heard Walker wanted to be a Husky, he laughed. UConn hadn’t even shown any interest and Walker was projected to be a mid-major player.
“I don’t think you’re good enough to play there yet,” Richardson told the Rice High School point guard, prodding him to think more realistically about his future. “There’s not a lot of late bloomers that are six foot.”
But reality wasn’t a message the kid with sky-high dreams wanted to hear, even if scouting reports sent him back down to earth. He could make shots when needed — but could he become a consistent shooter? He could dazzle — but could he defend? His crossovers could leave defenders’ legs twisted in ways they shouldn’t — but could he command a team?
Walker heard all of the questions. He longed for a chance to give answers.
“He took everything personal,” said Richardson, now an assistant coach at Arizona. “Religiously, he was always in the Gauchos gym. He never allowed himself to be complacent with just being good. He always wanted to be great.”
It’s a hot morning in Los Angeles in early November, almost reaching the 80s before noon. The Hornets are shooting around in STAPLES Center, preparing for the Lakers later that night.
Walker is in a light mood, knocking down shots, inching closer, stepping back, finding his rhythm.
In a larger sense, the fourth-year pro is trying to find his stride in a league saturated with point guards. He’s years removed from his prep days, let alone leading UConn to a national championship in 2011. Yet those same questions about his outside shooting and defense still remain.
This is a pivotal season for Walker, whose four-year, $48 million contract extension secured him as a key piece in the franchise’s future. Will he grow into an elite point guard or will he not rise to the occasion? This is a critical year for the Hornets, too. Last season’s first-round playoff appearance set the bar high for this season. Will they take the next step in winning a series or crack amid the hype?
Charlotte’s success is tied to Walker’s and Walker’s to Charlotte’s. Both have potential. Both have something to prove. And both know their fates are intertwined.
“I just want to win,” Walker said while sitting courtside after shootaround. “Of course I can say, ‘Oh, I want to be an All-Star’ and things like that. But in order to do all those things, you have to win.”
Walker knows all eyes are on him.
After good games, after bad games, after so-so games — the lights aren’t coming off. Not when his contract extension — his worth as a player — is measured on every possession.
When he shines, like nailing the game-winner in overtime against the Bucks or dishing out 10 assists against the Hawks? He’s really earning that check.
When he struggles, like shooting 3-for-14 against the Warriors or letting Jeremy Lin blow by him repeatedly in a loss to the Lakers? How did the Hornets ever give him that much money?
Walker has electrifying moments that wake you up like a splash of cold water. His deadly crossover step-back over Brandon Knight and the Bucks. His crisp jab and jumper against Shabazz Napier to give the Hornets a critical fourth-quarter lead over the Heat. His signature mid-range pull-up jumper, under which invisible cones seem to linger near his ankles as if he’s about to perform a clinic.
There’s a melody to the way Walker moves.
“He’s so agile on the dribble because he’s so small, so low to the ground, that he can maneuver his way around the defense,” said Roscoe Smith, a starter on UConn’s championship team and now forward for the L.A. D-Fenders.
But some games, he might give you the whole song. Other games: just a few bars.
Walker can be less aggressive for stretches of time. When he does attack the rim, he struggles to finish, shooting just 39 percent from the field and 54 percent at the rim, eighth-worst among point guards with at least 40 attempts. On defense, he sometimes has difficulty stopping quick guards like Jeff Teague, who made him pay with 22 points and 15 assists. Other times, he gets sucked under screens, as Damian Lillard took advantage with 29 points in a loss to Portland.
“Because of my height, I have to work a little bit harder. I’m at a disadvantage a lot of times with kind of everything,” Walker admitted. “On the defensive end, offensively just trying to get my shot off and things like that, strength, going against bigger point guards, stuff like that.”
Like its floor general, the Hornets vacillate between fun and flat. When the starters and reserves are both in sync and the home crowd is energized, Charlotte looks like a potential playoff team. There’s Al Jefferson’s finesse in the post. Lance Stephenson in control while driving to the basket. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist diving for a loose ball. Gary Neal hitting threes. Cody Zeller with momentum-changing defensive plays, Marvin Williams hitting jumpers.
“There’s no more of us targeting teams,” Walker said. “We’re the bullseye nowadays.”
Other times, the Hornets, now 4-8 overall and 1-6 away from home after a buzzer-beating loss to the Pacers Wednesday, look less sure of themselves. They have talent, but haven’t quite figured out how to harness it for 48 minutes. Poor spacing, dismal shooting and turnovers have plagued the team. They tend to dig themselves into first-half holes or struggle to close out second halves, like conceding a 23-point lead to the Trail Blazers in a 102-100 loss.
The Hornets, like Walker, must find consistency.
Top 10? Top 15? Walker’s name is seldom found on the NBA’s top point guard lists. But he’s been in this position before: on the margins trying to swim to the center.
He wasn’t always the best player on the floor in high school. There, he competed against talented Gauchos guards Jordan Theodore (who eventually played for Seton Hall), Darryl “Truck” Bryant (West Virginia), Durand Scott (Miami), Chris Fouch (Drexel). At Rice, he faced top recruits like Edgar Sosa (Louisville), Kashif Pratt (Seton Hall) and Lamont “MoMo” Jones (Arizona). Walker couldn’t afford to kick back.
“There was no day off,” Richardson said. “Because if there was a day off, someone was going to get the better of him.”
He again found himself with something to prove when he arrived in Storrs, Conn. as a freshman in 2008. Three upperclassman guards were ahead of him: A.J. Price, Jerome Dyson and Craig Austrie. With hyper-quick speed, Walker could teleport himself up and down the court within seconds to score. But he had to again learn how to get others involved.
“We didn’t really fight with him,” former UConn assistant coach George Blaney said. “But we really had to work with him a great deal to become a point guard.”
Walker was driven rather than discouraged. He worked to find the balance between looking for his own shot and creating one for a teammate. He practiced dribbling directly into the paint to attack rather than wasting time dribbling side to side. He shot jumpers with teammate Donnell Beverly any chance he could.
“Kemba was a gym rat, right from the get-go,” Blaney said. “Mostly he took to wanting to be in the gym and wanting to get better.”
He’s now a pro, but the same shortcomings must be overcome. There wasn’t a shot he didn’t take this past offseason, especially from long-distance. He watched hours of film with Hornets coach Steve Clifford, dissecting the pick and roll on defense. How to avoid getting hammered by the screen. How to become more agile at fighting over the top.
This year is different than all the years he spent in the gym in New York or Connecticut. He’s not the kid trying to stand out with the stacked Gauchos, nor is he the wide-eyed freshman behind proven college vets. Both times, he surpassed expectations because there were hardly any. But his new contract sets the high expectations for him, even if he’s trying to maintain perspective.
“I just want to continue to get better, each and every year, each and every day,” Walker said.
The Hornets are up by two against the Hawks with 55 seconds left in the first overtime and eight seconds remaining on the shot clock. This is a must-score possession. Walker drops the ball into the post to Jefferson. Jefferson, who exploded with a season-high 34 points that night, usually tries to finish the move.
Except he doesn’t this time. He doesn’t even turn and face the basket, instead waiting for his point guard to zoom alongside him for the hand-off. Walker puts in a reverse layup to give the Hornets a critical four-point lead in a game they’d eventually win.
“A little bit of that is New York City, too. They’re never afraid of the big moment,” Blaney said. “He was never afraid.”
The Hornets need their point guard and the point guard needs them. Both can rise to the occasion when the shot clock is dwindling and the game is on the line. But both have to prove they can play at a higher level for the whole game and the whole season to reach the long-term success they crave.
The moment to step up is here. And Kemba wants the ball.