To Kemba Walker, Charlotte isn’t a stop to do a job and bank a check.
Charlotte represents a bond of sorts after eight years, an expectation of big things he’s yet to achieve.
So Wednesday, before the Charlotte Hornets’ plane left for a Thursday game in Orlando, Fla., All-Star point guard Kemba Walker tweeted something heartfelt. To the tens of thousands of visitors for All-Star Weekend, “Welcome everyone to my city!”
I asked Walker what “my city” means to him.
“It means a lot. This city has embraced me so much over the years,” Walker said on Wednesday in a one-on-one interview with the Observer. “Allowed me to be who I am. Allowed me to play through my mistakes early in my career, to become the player I am today.”
Then, before I could ask, Walker brought up the patience the Hornets’ fan base has demonstrated: The team has three playoff appearances since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004 and has never advanced past the first round.
“The fans have just been top notch, and I respect that because we haven’t been a top organization, haven’t gone to the playoffs every year,” said Walker, who will start in Sunday’s All-Star Game at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center.
“I know this city is so ready for that. Through that, they still embrace us, still embrace me. You have to respect that.”
I don’t know what will happen when Walker reaches free agency in July. I don’t think he can know definitively until he and his agent get into a conference room with Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak and owner Michael Jordan.
Here’s what I do know: Walker loves Charlotte and wants to finish what he started when the Hornets (then-Bobcats) drafted him in 2011. If he leaves – I consider that unlikely – it won’t be because he wants to escape.
Part of that bond Walker describes is about Jordan having conviction, when the Hornets selected him ninth overall out of Connecticut, that Walker had that special makeup of a winner, what Jordan had as a six-time NBA champion.
Jordan recalled that during a media appearance Tuesday.
“I always believed this kid was an All-Star,” Jordan said of Walker.
Walker didn’t. He dreamed big growing up in New York City, but he was 6-foot-tall and just hoping to be offered a scholarship to a major college program.
“I knew I could work for it. I knew I’m a hard worker and always wanted to be great at this game,” Walker recalled of his youth. “Did I believe it, personally? I can’t say I did.”
Even after leading Connecticut to the national championship, Walker had self-doubt. He was flawed entering the NBA, most notably a poor 3-point shooter and for all his explosiveness off the dribble, he was still prone to putting himself and teammates into predicaments.
The leap occurred in the summer of 2015 and centered on Walker fixing an unreliable long-range shot. Over his first four NBA seasons, Walker never shot better than 33 percent from 3-point range. He turned his jump shot over to a relative stranger, Bruce Kreutzer, who had replaced Mark Price as the Hornets’ shooting specialist.
Walker wasn’t confident the changes Kreutzer was making – particularly moving the launch point farther right of Walker’s face – were of benefit. One night Walker was so frustrated, he texted head coach Steve Clifford he wanted to abort the shot change.
“I hated it just because it was different. Change is very scary,” Walker recalled. “It just wasn’t working.”
Clifford, who now coaches the Orlando Magic, texted Walker that night, “Please, Kemba, trust it.”
The very next game, Walker nailed four 3-pointers against the Miami Heat. In the 3 1/2 seasons since then, Walker has never failed to shoot at least 37 percent from 3-point range. That was transformational in how teams must defend him; opponents can no longer go under screens because that leaves him wide open for the 3. Fighting over screens opens Walker’s dribble drive, either as a scorer or passer.
Always a plan
Clifford made an observation when the Hornets played the Magic early this season that captures Walker’s evolution – that he has reached an intellectual plane in basketball where, no matter what you try defending him, he always has a plan with the ball.
Walker agrees. He says that instant recognition came last season. Teams started throwing such exotic defenses at him that it was even more important to spend extra time watching video.
“Now, whenever teams are back, I’m getting to my spot (for a) pull-up. And when teams are really out on me, I’m trying to drag them out as much as possible so my teammates can make plays.
“Especially for me, the way teams guard me. I have to have a plan.”
Sense of wonder
Walker will make his third consecutive All-Star Game appearance Sunday. He is on track to be rewarded with a new contract that under NBA rules could exceed $150 million guaranteed, unprecedented in Charlotte team sports history.
Walker is well past the point of worrying he doesn’t belong with the elite. But that doesn’t mean he’s detached from the wonder he ever got this far.
“Sometimes I’ll look over at Marv (teammate Marvin Walker) and say, ‘We’re in the NBA, bro!’ It’s crazy!”
Crazy, maybe. But Jordan saw something special. Walker refined it. And eight years later, Walker’s city gets to host the party.
This story first appeared in The Charlotte Observer.