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.
NBA Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role
The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.
The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.
On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.
Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.
“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .
Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.
Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.
“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.
In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.
Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.
“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”
If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.
Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.
“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”
After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.
Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.
Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd
The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Bucks assistant coach Joe Prunty will be installed as interim coach, league sources tell ESPN. He will coach Bucks against Phoenix tonight.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 22, 2018
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17
Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.
It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.
There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
6. Hassan Whiteside
After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.
5. Anthony Davis
Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.
4. Josh Richardson
Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.
Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.
3. Kevin Durant
This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.
In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.
2. Joel Embiid
Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.
Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.
Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.
Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.
He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.
1. Paul George
Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.
Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.
“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”
Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.
“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”
Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.
“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”
That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.
Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.