As the beads of sweat rolled down his forehead, he began his routine before an empty gym. The bright lights beamed down upon him. He shot step-back jumpers, crossing over from side to side. With an intent focus, as the gym filled up, he’d lost track of time before being reminded that tip-off was nigh.
And as Kemba Walker prepared to play his first game since being named an NBA All-Star for the first time, it was quite appropriate that Madison Square Garden—the biggest platform in his hometown—would be his stage.
The long journey to this point—from the Sack-Wern housing projects in the Soundview section of the Bronx, all the way down to the house that Michael Jordan built—Walker was now where he always dreamed he’d be. He was in his hometown, serving as an inspiration to a city which boasts a proud basketball tradition.
Minuscule as he may be, Walker is tiny in stature alone. In more important ways, he’s become a giant.
* * * * * *
I’ve only known Kemba Walker for six years, but I’ve known of him much longer.
With the explosion of the digital media marketplace, it’s easier than ever to hear what a player said after a game or find out how many points he scored in his previous contest. For someone who has been blessed to have a front row seat to the game and access to some of the world’s great athletes, the best and most rewarding part of the job is having the opportunity to know NBA players as men. Walker, as a person, is perhaps the finest specimen.
As he completed his warm up at Madison Square Garden, I sat perched on the scorer’s table at midcourt, like a player waiting to check into the game. The plan was for Walker and I to connect after the game, but when his pregame workout regimen took longer than expected, our rendezvous occurred.
Since the night of the 2011 draft, Walker’s life has changed dramatically. From a starry-eyed neophyte hoping to supplant incumbent starter D.J. Augustin to being the unquestioned franchise player, in many ways, he remains the same humble sociology major who graduated college in just three years. Walker, now just the seventh Hornets player in franchise history to make an All-Star team, had finally achieved something he’d seemingly been working toward since his days at Rice High School in Manhattan.
“You know me,” Walker said as his eyes opened widely. He shook his head as he sighed.
“I’m just grateful that the coaches put me in.”
And when reminded that he should have made the All-Star team last season, Walker was quick to respond, humbly and politely. With a shrug of the shoulders, he served a quick reminder.
“With me, it’s never been about the individual accomplishments. I just work hard and try to be the best player I can be. That’s gotten me to this point, so I’m just gonna do me,” he said.
The son of Caribbean immigrants, from the time we met, Walker and I shared a common story. My parents emigrated from Jamaica in the 1970s, while his mother (born in St. Croix) and father came by way of Antigua. Most often, when people from the Caribbean seek greener pastures in the United States, they do so with nothing but summer clothes, aspirations and values that they pass on to their children. In every way, shape and form, Walker has carried not only the Bronx with him on his back. He has also done everything within his power to be a good sibling and son—both to his parents and to the Hornets.
A fiery competitor, Walker may be minuscule in stature and humble in spirit, but that underlies the fire that burns deep down within.
“To be perfectly honest with you, I thought he was just ‘another’ small guard,” one member of the Hornets franchise told Basketball Insiders. “But honestly, he’s a franchise player. He’s the first guy to show up and the last guy to leave and he’s not one of those guys that do things and say things because it’s the ‘right thing’ to do. It’s just who Kemba is.”
On the night in question, despite the Hornets controlling the game through the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter, the Knicks got some heroic basketball from Courtney Lee and managed to turn a late deficit into a three-point win. In front of his hometown fans, Walker turned in a 31-point, 10-rebound effort and was clearly the standout performer of the night.
After the game, however, he blew off a question about his finally earning the first All-Star nod of his career.
“I’m not thinking about that right now,” Walker dismissively said to the assembled media when asked about the honor afterward.
Of course, anyone who knows Kemba Walker, what he stands for and what his motivations are knows that the last thing he would want to do is spend time speaking about an individual accomplishment after his team suffered a disappointing loss that doesn’t help his team to retain one of the Eastern Conference’s playoff seeds.
Walker always had and always will be team first. There may be a “me” in “Kemba,” but his entire existence has been dedicated to inspiring others. Even if he didn’t take the opportunity to extol his own virtues in public in his hometown, there’s no questioning that he has scratched and clawed his way toward being revered as one of the game’s more underrated floor generals.
* * * * * *
It’s been a while since I’ve visited Charlotte. In January 2015, when head coach Steve Clifford and I discussed Walker and the four-year, $48 million extension that the team signed him to, Clifford assured me that Walker would become an All-Star and a pillar for the franchise. Now, just two years later, the premonition has proven true. He now joins the likes of Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Glen Rice.
Back in 2015, it was all just a dream.
Then, Walker was only a few years removed from being a standout high school player. He revealed that he had been told that he was too small, too nice and too raw to ever become a meaningful point guard at the professional level. It wasn’t until he began seeing his name in mock drafts after he performed admirably in the McDonald’s All-American game in 2008 that he believed he actually had an opportunity to go pro.
On the night of the 2011 draft—the night we spoke for the first time—Walker said that he was grateful for Michael Jordan taking a chance on him and vowed to work tirelessly to maximize his potential and reward the faith that was shown in him.
In 2015, when I visited him in Charlotte, he told a story of a small kid from the Bronx who listened to his parents, worked hard and never stopped believing in himself. And on this night, about two years later, Walker found himself in one of the buildings that were most influential to his development. This was the very court that saw his UConn Huskies capture the Big East Championship in 2011 behind one of the greatest tournament performances in history.
So yes, it was quite appropriate that Walker found himself in Madison Square Garden, once again. It’s funny how circuitous life can be. In a familiar place, Walker had found himself surrounded by familiar faces. Many things remained the same, but one thing was different.
Kemba Walker. New York City kid. NBA point guard.
Before tip-off, as we bid one another adieu, Walker jogged back to the Hornets locker room while I found my seat in the press box. As I have had over the six years of his NBA career, I had a front row seat.
Seeing players fulfill their potential—it’s what we hope to witness. And consistent with his past practice, Walker has taken those hopes and has made all that root for him as proud as can be.
His inspiring journey is far from over, but to this point, it has been as successful as it has been overlooked.
In 1990, in New York City, the Big Apple’s next great point guard was born. And on January 27, it was quite fitting that he happened to find himself in the very arena that, no doubt, inspired him along the way.
The Lakers Have Finally Stabilized
After a tough five-year period filled with loss and disappointment, the Lakers have finally put themselves back in a position to succeed.
On paper, missing the playoffs for the fifth year in a row would rarely be considered impressive, but for the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that’s suffered pretty much nothing but misery over the last half-decade, this season was a sign of progress.
Leading up to this past season, the previous four years overall were anything but easy on the Lakers. Besides consistently being one of the worst teams in the league, some of the team’s high lottery picks, such as D’Angelo Russell, did not pan out as well as they had hoped, and management baffled the fanbase when they signed both Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to approximately $140 million combined over four years.
This season, things finally took a turn for the better. The team’s youngest players, particularly Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Lonzo Ball, started to yield positive results. The team’s new acquisitions, specifically Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and briefly Isaiah Thomas, made a notable impact on the season. Second-year head coach Luke Walton proved himself to be up for the job with improved personnel at his arsenal. That may have led to only 35 wins, but compared to the previous four seasons’ final results, 35 wins is about as good as the Lakers could have hoped for.
And it should only get better from here. The biggest positive is that the team’s long-term outlook is now the brightest its been since Dwight Howard skipped town in 2013. Their impending return to the glory days is still up in the air, but the Lakers can finally look forward to a promising future for two reasons.
When the Lakers replaced Mitch Kupchak with Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to run the team, the two of them went to work right away. Pelinka and Johnson knew that if the Lakers were going to attain relevance again, they had to undo the franchise’s previous mistakes, even if it meant getting rid of some of their young talent.
It’s as the old saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”
Making said omelet started with getting rid of their albatross contracts. The Lakers found a taker for Mozgov when they traded him to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez’s expiring deal, but that deal also required trading Russell. Mid-season, the Lakers found a taker for Jordan Clarkson when they traded him to Cleveland, but that deal also required trading Larry Nance Jr.
Losing Russell and Nance Jr, and to some degree Clarkson, may have been tough cheese to swallow, but with Mozgov and Clarkson off the payroll, the Lakers have a ton of cap space at their disposal. In fact, this summer, the Lakers have only $34.5 million in guaranteed contracts, which will be the lowest payroll in entire NBA. This is a much bigger deal now that it’s been in the past for one simple reason: Hardly any teams will have cap room this summer.
The NBA salary cap’s drastic rise in 2016 caused many teams to overshoot their mark over the past two off-seasons. Because of that, quite a few teams will be paying the luxury tax while others will do everything in their power to avoid the luxury tax. This means that only a select few teams will have cap room to add a free agent on a max deal. The Lakers, on the other hand, have the cap room to add two.
Their situation only gets better given the competition in free agency. Most of the other teams that have cap room are in rebuilding mode, so the Lakers shouldn’t expect many competitors in their chase for marquee free agents ie LeBron James and Paul George this summer. The only other team that will be competing for their services with available cap space is Philadelphia, who only has $44 million on payroll this summer. Houston will also be in the race, but they will have to get creative if they hope to add a max free agent this summer plus keep Chris Paul AND Clint Capela.
Even if the Lakers whiff on LeBron and George, it isn’t the end of the world. They can afford to re-sign Thomas and/or Caldwell-Pope to one-year deals worth over $10 million because hardly anyone else can do the same. Even if absolutely nothing goes their way this summer, they’ll have flexibility again next season. While having cap space does not automatically mean free agents will come to the Lakers’ door next season, it’s better to have money available to offer than having to spend it on Clarkson and Mozgov.
Promising Youth Movement
Many knew the Lakers’ young core was nothing to sneeze at, but for the first time since they’ve started their rebuild in 2013, their youth movement’s talent finally translated into wins. They didn’t do it all on their own, but nothing makes a team’s future brighter than their young players starting to reach their potential.
That starts with Brandon Ingram. Ingram was the textbook example of raw his rookie season, but his sophomore year, he started living up to his billing as the second overall pick in his draft. Across the board, he improved his numbers, but his shining moment came when the Lakers turned to him to run the point with Lonzo Ball out in late-January. During that stretch, the Duke alum averaged 18.4 points on 52 percent shooting including 46 percent from three, 5.4 assists, and 5.5 rebounds. Ingram struggled mightily with injuries after that, but his vast improvement should be very beneficial in the long run.
Then there was the biggest surprise of the season: Kyle Kuzma. When the deal was first agreed to, Kuzma was originally a throw-in when the Lakers traded Mozgov and Russell for Lopez, but knowing Brooklyn’s luck, Kuzma may wind up being the best player in this deal. Kuzma wowed the fans at the Staples Center, as he averaged 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 45 percent from the field. Since Kuzma is only 22 years old, there’s no telling what his ceiling might be.
Then there’s the first lottery pick the Lakers drafted in their rebuild: Julius Randle. Randle got himself in the best shape of his life in preparation for this season, and it paid off on the court. Randle averaged career-highs in both point average (16.1) and field goal percentage (58 percent), but his best stretch came in February through March. In that time, Randle averaged 21.2 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. Randle is a restricted free agent this year, but with the lack of available money this summer, his best option may be to stay in LA.
Finally, the biggest wild card of the Lakers’ young talent: Lonzo Ball. Ball was both injury-riddled and inconsistent his rookie year, but he showed flashes every now and again of the player his humble father said he would be. While he had his issues putting the ball in the bucket, Ball’s much-hyped passing translated in the NBA, averaging 7.2 assists a game, and his rebounding was terrific given his size, as he averaged 6.9 rebounds a game. The jury is still out on Ball, but he should be given a full season before anyone comes to judgment.
In short, the Lakers’ cap flexibility and promising youth movement give them stability that not many believed they would have had at the end of last season. Inadequacy and incompetence have plagued the Lakeshow for the past several years, but now that they’ve brought the right people aboard, they are now pointed in the right direction.
NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man
Chimezie Metu could end up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.
Each year when it comes to the NBA draft, there always seems to a few players flying under the radar a bit. Players who are underrated or overlooked for whatever reason. This year, one of those players is Chimezie Metu from the University of Southern California.
In early mock drafts, Metu was projected to go anywhere from mid to late first-round. In some of the more recent mocks, he’s fallen out of the first-round altogether and into the second-round. If those projections hold and he does end up being selected in the second-round, then some team is going to get a huge steal.
Metu is a versatile big man who impacts both ends of the floor. He is an agile shot blocker who can control the paint defensively, and on the other end, he can score in the post while being able to step out and knock down mid-range jump shots. He is confident in what he’ll be able to bring to an NBA team.
“I think being versatile and being able to make an impact on defense right away,” Metu told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine this past week. “Being able to switch on to smaller players or guard the post, and just being able to knock down shots or make plays when I’m called upon.”
In his three years at USC, Metu blossomed into one of the best players in the Pac-12 conference. This past season, he led a solid Trojans team in scoring with 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. He also led the team in rebounding with 7.4 per game and had a team-high 59 blocked shots.
He’s taken note of some of the best big men in the NBA, some of whom he’s tried to model his game after. He told reporters at the combine that some of his biggest influences are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. He knows that there may be misconceptions about his game, or those that doubt him, but he isn’t worried about that at all.
“I don’t really worry about what other people are saying about myself. I just go out there and play hard, and try to help my team win games,” Metu said. “My strength is being versatile, being able to impact the game in multiple ways. Not being one dimensional and being able to have fingerprints on different parts of the game.”
It’s been busy past few days for Metu. He’s had 13 interviews with NBA teams to go along with workouts, medical testing and media availability. Although it’s been a hectic time, part of what has made it so worthwhile is all of the NBA personnel he’s been able to interact with. What really has stood out to him being at the combine is the difference between college and the NBA.
“I can just go up to the owners and the GMs and just talk to them,” Metu said. “Coming from college you basically have to act like they’re not there, cause of the rules and stuff. Just the fact that they can come up and talk to you, you can talk to them, that’s probably the most surprising part for me.”
Aside from all the front office personnel he’s interacted with, Metu has also had the opportunity to meet with some of the most respected names in NBA history. Among the former players who he’s had a chance to meet with, Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo have definitely stood out to him.
While he’s grateful just to have been able to meet NBA royalty, he’s used it as an opportunity to pick their brains. He’s also been able to showcase his game in front of them. He is confident that he’s been able to impress them and hopefully make an impact on their decisions come draft night.
“Just coming out here and having fun, there’s a lot of basketball royalty,” Metu said. “Being able to get a chance to shake their hands, being able to take stuff from them and what helped them become great. I’m just trying to take their advice. It feels great because never in a million years did I think I’d be here. It’s fun just going out there and showing what I can do.”
The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft
College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.
Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.
It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.
However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.
A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.
Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.
There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.
This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.
But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.
With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.
Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.
Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.
But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.
College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.