Kemba Walker is many things to the Charlotte Bobcats: Leading scorer, tops in assists and steals. He leads the team in pass deflections and is among the NBA’s best at “And 1s” – three-point plays created off drives and shooting fouls.
What isn’t he yet for this team?
The “voice,” coach Mike Dunlap said recently.
“You’d like a Peyton Manning disposition in huddles,” Dunlap described of his point guard. “Kemba has a quiet disposition, so pulling that jacket on can be kind of difficult.
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“It’s not his nature. But it needs to be his nature.”
Walker was read that quote a week ago. Two words into the reading, he smiled. This is no new issue. In high school the coach told him to be more vocal and bossy. College coaches told him to be more vocal and bossy.
Vocal and bossy is not typically Walker’s way, particularly when that involves poking his elders. Flamboyant as he appears on the basketball court, Walker is understated in personality, polite to a fault.
While ordering people around isn’t Walker’s way, it is a point guard’s calling.
“That’s hard,” said Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who played 13 NBA seasons as a point. “Mike Fratello was my coach with the (Atlanta) Hawks, and he’d say, ‘That’s tough – it’s your job.’
“He was right. I had to decide the right play and get you to your spot. And I had to tell you that.”
The good news is wherever Walker has played his reluctance to lead assertively has receded with time. The quiet kid at Rice High in Harlem won a state title. The quiet kid at Connecticut won a national championship.
Will the quiet young man with the Bobcats repeat the pattern?
Played so hard
Moe Hicks kept hearing about this wondrous kid. He was 13 at the time with the energy and relentlessness of a high school senior.
The youth-league coaches told Hicks, the coach at Rice High, to come see their find. Hicks assumed no middle-school kid could be all that.
“I fell in love with him,” said Hicks, now director of men’s basketball operations at St. John’s. “To find a kid playing that hard at 13 is unbelievable.”
Nearly as improbable, Walker had no noticeable ego. Basketball player was the top of the food chain at Rice High. Players swaggered through the halls, flaunting their presence.
Walker was the studious, quiet kid sitting at the front of classrooms. Hicks said many of his teachers didn’t know Walker played basketball until his junior year, when he hit a winning shot in the state playoffs.
To understand this, Hicks said, you must appreciate Walker’s family dynamic. Most of the kids Hicks coached had outsized egos. Their parents were enablers. Walker’s parents took a different route.
Walker’s dad served as Rice High’s videographer, providing coaches with their game tape. Every time Hicks and his assistants reviewed a game, they’d get comic relief from the audio; Papa Walker’s constant and brutal critiques of his son’s performance.
“Kemba, Kemba, don’t do that! What are you thinking!” the dad would screech.
Five years removed from high school, Walker chuckled at the retelling of Hicks’ recollection. Walker’s dad, an immigrant from St. Croix, never allowed him shortcuts.
“My dad thinks he knows everything about the game. He’s a funny dude,” Walker said.
“My parents are great. They were tough on me; made sure I did everything right. But it was actually pretty easy. My parents always went to work – through bad weather and sickness. Whatever we needed, they tried hard to get it. I learned to work through my parents.”
He was Rice’s best player as a sophomore, a national prep star as a junior. Early on, Hicks wanted Walker to assert authority over teammates. It didn’t happen, at least until Walker had seniority over most of the varsity players.
“I would want him to ‘(expletive)’ some of these guys, but that was not him,” said Hicks. “I can see where that’s something he could still improve on.”
As a sophomore, Walker was getting polite recruiting attention from the local colleges in New York. He blew up over the summer between his sophomore and junior seasons, dominating the AAU circuit.
Hicks asked him what his dream school was. Walker replied Connecticut, which at the time was preoccupied with recruiting point guard Brandon Jennings. Walker and Jennings faced off in a tournament game in Las Vegas. Walker dominated.
Jennings ended up skipping college, playing in Italy until he could apply for the NBA draft. Walker ended up at UConn, a decision that brought the 2011 national championship to Storrs.
Change or fail
When Walker showed up at Connecticut, he had all the talent, none of the nuance. The rare speed and ballhandling were obvious, but he had no sense of how to play at different speeds to exploit his gifts.
“Kemba was a typical New York City point guard – he was all about pushing the ball as hard as he can as fast as he can, pretty much every possession,” said George Blaney, lead assistant on those UConn teams. “It took him some time to learn to become a more under-control point guard.”
Similarly the coaches tried to fast-track his leadership skills. They asked him to take charge as a sophomore, to not defer to older players. It never happened that season, and the Huskies missed the NCAA tournament, losing a National Invitation Tournament game at Virginia Tech.
Coach Jim Calhoun invoked a different course within days of that loss. Noting the Huskies would have seven freshmen on the roster, Calhoun called in Walker and made him captain. In the process, he told Walker if he didn’t dominate – on the court and in the locker room – this would fail.
“He told me I’d have to score a lot of points,” Walker recalled. “I’ve never worked harder than the summer before my junior year. I went to a lot of camps or stayed at school – summer school and working out. That was a huge summer for me.”
A summer that exploded into a national championship: He nearly doubled his scoring, from 14.6 points as a sophomore to 23.5 as a junior. The liftoff for that title came at the Big East tournament. Walker was the most outstanding player in New York, so he had numerous media obligations following the title game.
Long after others had boarded the team bus, Walker climbed the steps. As he reached the aisle, players, coaches and support staff all stood and applauded the five games Walker strung together to win the conference.
“It was a crazy, crazy moment,” Walker recalled.
“All I could think about is, ‘Now we’re a team. That’s what a real team does.’ I would have done the same thing. I played some pretty good basketball over those five days. My teammates did, too. To have your teammates applaud me like that was an incredible feeling. It showed how much we all cared about each other.”
Months later the cycle of Walker’s career reset. The Bobcats drafted him ninth overall, with owner Michael Jordan saying he saw his own competitive zeal in Walker’s play.
Then the lockout robbed Walker of summer league, one-on-one coaching and an extended preseason.
“Everything was learning on the fly,” Walker said of an underwhelming rookie season. “I didn’t really know the speed of the game and how much bigger, faster and stronger everyone else is. I couldn’t finish over guys and my pace was different. I was playing at a college pace in the NBA.”
Following the worst season in NBA history (7-59), Bobcats management chose a new coach whose primary sales pitch was making Kemba Kemba again. A colleague of Hicks’ at St. John’s, Dunlap promoted an offense full of the drag screens that freed Walker all the way back at Rice High.
It was an easy sell, and Walker thrived, averaging 17.3 points, 5.6 assists and 1.9 steals. As president of basketball operations Rod Higgins said at midseason, Walker has the keys to the car.
Does he drive or sit in the back seat? Dunlap needs that voice.
“He’s right. That’s always been my problem – my voice,” Walker said. “I’m not the loud type. When I actually was on the championship team, guys were much younger than me. It’s hard when you’re surrounded by older guys. You don’t know if they will let you (lead).
“I think I do have the leeway to lead these guys. We have really high-caliber guys on this team, and they would actually let me be that guy.
“If I have something to say, just say it.”
It’s not coincidental Walker’s best friend on this team is shooting guard Gerald Henderson, who is assertive and blunt in just the way Walker isn’t. Henderson sees a dichotomy between how Walker plays and acts.
“Take this the right way: He’s a selfish player in terms of scoring the ball. He gets excited. He plays with aggression,” Henderson described.
“That all comes from within: His thing (needs to be), ‘How do you put that into your teammates?’
“He’s Kemba Walker; he hits game-winning shots. He has that verve about him. I can help him with that, getting our whole team to play with that swagger. As a point guard, especially the way he plays, it’s important for him to thrust that into our team.”
To Henderson that’s simple and obvious. To Walker that’s hard. But it’s something he always has resolved, given time.
“I like everyone to shine, not just me,” Walker concluded. “Sometimes you need to shine individually. Sometimes you let everyone else shine, too.”