At just 16 years old, Kemba Walker out-dueled Derrick Rose in front of 20,000 fans at a jam-packed Madison Square Garden.
Three years ago, he led his AAU team, the New York Gauchos, to finish tops in the nation.
The very next season, Kemba was the third guard on a #1 seeded UConn team that he helped lead to the Final Four.
And just a few months back, Kemba returned to MSG to win five games in five days to win the Big East Tournament before putting a team with seven freshmen on his back to win the NCAA Tournament.
To say the least, Kemba Walker loves the spotlight. But now, the 2011 NCAA Basketball Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player steps onto the biggest stage of his life. No, not Apollo Theater. Not Madison Square Garden. The National Basketball Association.
Sitting in a mostly empty Time Warner Cable Arena, it doesn’t take long for the average viewer to figure out that the Bobcats don’t have the greatest fan base. The crowd rarely makes much of any noise unless egged on by the cheesy “Let’s Make Some Noise!!!” Meter on the jumbo-tron. Even a fast-break dunk will only slightly elicit more claps then the Lady Cats and Rufus throwing $5 T-Shirts into the crowd.
But the loudest I’ve ever heard the Cable Box wasn’t all that long ago. In fact, it was just about one month ago on Draft Night when the Bobcats made the ninth selection. When the words “Kemba Walker” left the lips of Commissioner David Stern, the entire arena exploded with jubilation. Moms hugging kids. Grown men jumping up and down. Possibly the best atmosphere I’ve ever been around since Charlotte’s all-too-short playoff stint last summer.
All of these festivities for an undersized point guard who stands at 6’1” on a good day. But ultimately, his stature isn’t really what makes his game; he’s a tough-as-nails warrior, and a true leader of men. And on a roster full of unproven young talent, has-beens, and never wills (I’m looking at you, Eduardo Najera) I think that it’s fair to expect Kemba Walker to be a bright spot in an overall gloomy season.
For sure, Kemba Walker is not your prototypical point guard. Now, that’s not a bad thing. Most point guards don’t have the tenacity, quickness, or pure scoring ability that Walker possesses, even if they are a few inches taller.
Offensively, his height should not prove to be a problem. Thanks to a nearly 40’ vertical jump, a high release, and high arcing shot, Kemba is harder to block than most players his size. Plus, with an array of isolation moves most notably including a jab to create space then a step-back jumper, he’s remarkably good at creating his own shot.
But unlike many other small guards, spot up shooting isn’t Kemba’s most dangerous weapon. What makes him so lethal is his quickness. This makes Kemba tough to plan against in two ways: the kick and drive game and fast breaks.
Throughout his collegiate career Kemba has been very tough to guard. If you leave him in single coverage, he’ll drive to the bucket where he can unleash his litany of post moves (tear drop, up-and-under layup, floater high off the glass…) and draw a foul. If you put him in double coverage, he has the court vision to penetrate and still find the open man.
Defensively, however, there is cause for concern. In this day and age of big, athletic point guards—Deron Williams, John Wall, and Derrick Rose to name a few—Walker will have problems stopping them, particularly when he is posted up. This size disadvantage may force Charlotte into running a zone, especially when Coach Silas opts to play Kemba and D.J. Augustin together.
Just like how he plays to his strengths on offense, Kemba maximizes his speed on defense, as well. He is a bit of an opportunist defensively—he’s aggressive trying to intercept passes—which can leave his teammates in a tough 4-on-5 position when he whiffs, but also jumpstarts fast breaks when his gambles pay off.
And when he does trigger a fast break, boy does he make you pay. Between his speed, court vision, and ability to absorb contact, Kemba really is a nightmare to guard. He’s creative in the paint, fearless getting to the bucket, and isn’t afraid to defer.
Yes, Kemba has freakish speed. Yes, he has an uncanny ability to just get the ball in the bucket. But what really impresses me about this young man is his intangibles.
Every year at college, Kemba got better. Coming off the bench in his freshman year, he shot 47% from the field in his limited time, putting up 8.9 points, 2.9 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game. Each of the following seasons, he saw his points, assists, and rebounds grow in number while he got more aggressive, seeing his free throw attempts and percentage rocket up. Before long, we were looking at an All-American who put up a 23.5-4.5-5.4 line.
Not only does he improve every year, but Kemba also showed that he is adept to play in any role. Need him to carry the scoring load while leading the team? Check. Need him to come off the bench behind steady starters? Done it before. Thanks to his non-stop motor and tenacity on both ends of the floor, Kemba can be plugged into any role and be able to run the offense from the minute he steps on the court.
But the spot that he really takes to the next level would have to be during crunch time. When the light shines brightest on the biggest of stages, Kemba is there. He’s cool under pressure, confident, and capable. While some superstars will defer in the waning seconds—cough cough LeBron—Walker had led his UConn team to countless victories on last-second heroics.
As good as that sounds, Kemba’s confidence can sometimes escalate to a fault. He can take over games completely for minutes at a time, which can lead to forced shots, ignoring teammates, and overly-aggressive defense.
But those are just small blemishes on what I believe can be a very promising career. And at the end of the day, Kemba Walker does have one of the most valuable assets an NBA player can have: the Heart of a Champion. I know it sounds clichéd, but a winning mentality can never be over-valued, especially on a team so replete of “winners” as Charlotte (see: Maggette, Corey). Remember, you never doubt the Heart of a Champion.
For his rookie season, it’s reasonable to expect big things from Kemba Walker. Whether he’ll be coming off the bench from the start of the season or if Augustin will be shipped out of town before the first game, we don’t yet know. But as long as Maggette and the enigma that is Boris Diaw remain two of the biggest scoring threats, Kemba will assuredly receive major minutes.
If and when the season resumes, my best guess is that Kemba starts the year as the third guard in the rotation. But as the year creeps on, I expect him to usurp more and more of D.J.’s minutes until by the end of the season he is the starting point guard. I have a feeling Augustin will be a popular trade target among teams like Utah, New York, and Houston in search of a young point guard. I don’t think that it’s time to give up on D.J. per se, but even though he’s 23-years old, it doesn’t appear that he’ll ever be a top-15 or even top-20 NBA point guard.
Similar to the rookie seasons of Brandon Jennings and D.J. Augustin, I think Kemba Walker is looking at about 14 points and 5 assists per game for his rookie campaign. Not only will he bring much needed scoring to an anemic offensive team, but he will bring toughness and a winning mentality that this team has been searching for since its inception.
This article is the first by the newest Bobcats Baseline contributor, Ben W.