There are about 200 kids at the Kemba Walker Basketball Pro Camp Thursday morning, and Walker seems to know them all. These kids get a high-five, this one sits next to Walker for a picture and these three get a fake and a quick behind the back dribble.
Walker, who starts at point guard for the Charlotte Hornets, says he’s aware of the impact an athlete can make. Some of the kids, who are as young as first grade, make their own impact. They tell Walker his statistics.
"It’s kind of surreal," he says in the corner of the Carolina Courts gym. "It’s very humbling."
Last season was humbling for the Hornets. They finished 16 games below .500 and five games out of the playoffs.
We – players, fans and media – believed they were going to be good. At no point were they. The Hornets were hit by injuries, among them the torn meniscus in Walker’s left knee. But even before the injuries, they scraped along the margins of the Eastern Conference playoffs, hoping for a few breaks and a first-round matchup with Atlanta.
Management undid that team and added potential scorers of all sizes at all positions.
"We’ve done good, man," says Walker, 25. "We should be a lot better."
He doesn’t say the Hornets will be better. Look at last season, he says.
To accommodate the additions, some of his friends were jettisoned. I ask about Gerald Henderson, who was traded to Portland.
"Gerald’s my guy," Walker says of his long-time starting backcourt partner. "He’s one of my closest friends on the team. I talked to him after the trade. He’s in good spirits. As long as he’s in good spirits, I’m in good spirits. We talk. We only live about five minutes away from each other.
On July 9, Walker was in New York, en route to his basketball camp there. A friend has the Hornets’ app on his phone, and on the app there was breaking news. Charlotte signed point guard Jeremy Lin.
What? Walker’s face turns incredulous Thursday, replicating the way he looked in the car last week. He had no idea the Hornets were going to sign Lin. And he had no complaints.
"Oh, he’s a good player," Walker says.
Walker talks quietly. Not far away, Dino Gaudio, the former Wake Forest basketball coach, has the microphone and he knows how to use it. The kids listen to Gaudio’s instructions and line up for what comes next.
It will be interesting to see what comes next for Walker. Last season, his fourth in the NBA, he averaged 17.7 points, which ties his career high, and set highs with 6.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds.
He’s fearless, and he leads. What he doesn’t do is consistently hit jump shots. He shoots like a guy who grew up playing outside on courts in New York City. Last season he hit 38.5 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from behind the 3-point line. Both percentages dropped in the second half of the season when he struggled with the knee injury.
When Walker was good, he lifted everybody. On Jan. 12 he was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week after averaging 30.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and shooting 50 percent from the floor.
Walker is criticized for shooting too much. But in seasons past, who was he going to look for as the clock ran low? Who was capable of getting a shot and making it? Let the line form here. What line?
Next season Walker will have options, among them shooting guard Nicolas Batum; Lin and Walker’s former Connecticut teammate Jeremy Lamb; big men Frank Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes; Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a practice-court regular with new shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer; and perhaps some surprises.
I ask Walker what fans will see from him in season five. What specifically has he been working on?
He freezes. Only two of us remain in the corner of the gym and he, he, he – smiles.
"The 3-ball," he finally says.
If Walker shoots less and hits more, or shoots more and hits more, defenses will stretch to accommodate him as well as his new teammates. You imagine what he can do with room to move?
If Walker hits from distance, the Hornets should be better. They will be better, too.