Three weeks out from a momentous free-agent process, All-NBA point guard Kemba Walker made two declarations Thursday:
▪ Returning to the Charlotte Hornets is his first priority, but it’s not automatic he re-signs with the team. He plans to meet with other NBA teams as well after free agency begins the evening of June 30.
▪ He is open to taking less than the most the Hornets can pay him — $221 million over five years — if it means facilitating a better roster around him.
“How can they not be?’ Walker said about calling the Hornets his first priority. “I don’t understand how they can not be my first priority. I’ve been here eight years. They were the team that drafted me.
“I don’t know if I’ll sign back with them. I’m not sure. But they are my first priority.”
This is the first time Walker has been an unrestricted free agent — to be “in the driver’s seat” regarding the rest of his career, as he described Thursday during an appearance at a youth basketball camp at Ardrey Kell High School.
“If it doesn’t work out (with the Hornets), I’m definitely prepared to play somewhere else. But I’d love to be in Charlotte.”
By being named third-team All-NBA, Walker became eligible for a so-called “supermax” contract, which only the Hornets could offer. But Walker signing that ultra-lucrative deal would likely push the Hornets over next season’s luxury-tax threshold and make it difficult to upgrade a roster that has missed the playoffs each of the past three seasons. Walker has said the ability to qualify for and advance in the playoffs is important to him for the rest of his career.
Walker was asked if he’d consider taking less than the full $221 million guarantee to help the Hornets put talent around him.
After a pause, he said, “Yeah, why not. I would be. I would take less, for sure.”
Walker said he’s “pretty sure” he will meet with NBA teams other than the Hornets before making a decision. The Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks are all in position salary cap-wise to offer Walker a maximum-salary contract. Under NBA rules, the most another team could offer him is $140 million over four years. So the Hornets have a large advantage in what they can offer Walker if they choose to do so.
Walker is the Hornets’ career scoring leader along with holding numerous other franchise records. In the past six months, he has been named an All-Star Game starter, an All-NBA guard and one of 20 invitees to the Team USA tryouts to play in the World Cup tournament in China in September.
“When I first got into the league, I didn’t even know if I belonged,” Walker said of his journey from being the ninth overall draft pick in 2011 to now.
“To go from those down times to times like this, times where I’m standing right next to AD (Anthony Davis) or LeBron (James)? Those guys might not know it, but when I’m in a locker room next to those guys, I’m in awe. I can’t even believe I’m here.
“I never in a million years thought I’d be standing next to those guys like that, to get ready to play in an All-Star Game. Three All-Star Games! Life is great, man. I have no complaints.”
Walker said his impending free agency could be stressful, but it’s also exciting. He’ll never have more control over his career than he will this offseason.
“It’s my first time being a free agent, having the opportunity to kind of be in the driver’s seat. Have the opportunity to make a decision to play for different teams,” Walker said.
Walker said he will leave interaction with the Hornets primarily to his agent, Jeff Schwartz, but he has a meeting soon with the guy who will ultimately sign off on the Hornets’ offer: team owner Michael Jordan.
“I’ll see him in a few days.”