Being a “little man” on the basketball court is nothing new to Kemba Walker. The two-time NBA All-Star is listed as 6-foot-1 on the Charlotte Hornets’ roster, and even that measure of height might be generous.
He was the “little guy” as a teenager, too, playing for a New York state championship at a Bronx high school. He was, as well, in leading Connecticut to the national championship in 2011.
How does Walker survive, even thrive, in a world of 7-footers? By refusing to view his size as an impediment.
“I know I’m small. But I don’t feel small sometimes,” said Walker, who will play in his second All-Star Game Sunday in Los Angeles.
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“I feel like a giant sometimes.”
The NBA is a competition of big, bigger, biggest. Ever since Magic Johnson excelled in the 1980s for the Los Angeles Lakers as a 6-9 point guard, the league’s front offices have searched the world for players with frontcourt size and backcourt skills. The current prototypes would include the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant and the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo - matchup nightmares, each 6-9 or taller.
And yet, there’s still room for the Kembas. Walker is 17th in the NBA in scoring this season, at 22.9 points per game. The NBA’s rules prohibiting hand-checking make this an era when a ballhandler with Walker’s fearlessness can have huge impact. He’s not alone. Toronto Raptor Kyle Lowry is 6-foot. Golden State’s (and Charlotte’s own) Stephen Curry is 6-3, as is the Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving. Each is an All-Star this season.
It takes exceptional skill to excel at that height, but it also takes being wired differently. Walker is. In fact, he was recently compared to one of the fiercest competitors in NBA history.
Alvin Gentry, who grew up in Shelby and played college ball at Appalachian State, has coached in the NBA since 1988. He’s been head coach with five franchises, currently the New Orleans Pelicans, so he knows how “elite” looks, sounds and feels.
Gentry recently paid Walker a blow-away compliment.
“He’s probably the biggest competitor that I’ve ever met,” Gentry said in January. “I think you could put him right up there with Kobe (Bryant), from a competitive standpoint.
“When you look at what he did at Connecticut, he basically just put them on his back and took them to a championship. He has a competitive edge to him. When you’re that size in this league, that’s something that has to be ingrained in you.”
Bryant was drafted by the original Hornets in 1996, and traded to the Lakers in a prearranged deal. Over 20 seasons, Bryant played in seven NBA Finals, with the Lakers winning five championships. Bryant, who retired in 2016, wasn’t necessarily the most popular player among teammates, but played with a resolve and a fierceness that make him a Hall of Fame lock, likely a first-ballot selection.
What is it that makes Walker Kobe-like?
“When you watch the way he approaches the game, there’s an edge about him,” Gentry described. “I like that he believes he’s the best player on the court. You have to have that kind of attitude to be a really good player in this league. When he’s out there, he’s going to do everything he can for his team to win.”
Part of that makeup is the willingness by Walker to take the deciding shot in a close game and live with the consequences, good or bad.
“There are guys in this league who are willing to take that shot, and live with the results of it. They want the ball in their hands,” said Gentry. “There are some guys who would rather not have that shot.
“He’s saying, I’ll take that shot for the betterment of my team, and live with the results.”
Two seasons ago, Walker was the most clutch player in the NBA. He led the league in so-called “late-and-close” points (scoring in the last two minutes of a game with the margin four points or less) with 83.
But in the last two seasons, with Walker usually getting the ball late, the Hornets have greatly struggled. Wednesday’s 104-102 road victory over the Orlando Magic broke a streak of 14 consecutive games where the Hornets lost by a one-possession margin. Part of Walker’s makeup has always been accountability.
“A lot of times we go to me, and I’ve got to make a play,” Walker said in December of that streak. “My teammates and my coaches depend on me, so I have to be better in those late-game situations.”
This is season seven for Walker in Charlotte. The Hornets drafted him ninth overall in 2011, in part because team owner and basketball icon Michael Jordan saw qualities in Walker that reminded Jordan of himself.
Walker has set down roots in Charlotte; he is currently having a home built here. It was rattling for Walker to hear trade rumors that included his name, so much so that Jordan called him to reassure him the franchise would only consider dealing him if it was bowled over by an offer that never materialized by the Feb. 8 deadline.
That Feb. 8 game day in Portland, Ore., was an odd one for Walker. Once the trade deadline passed at noon PST, Walker settled in for a pregame nap. Then his phone blew up with congratulatory text messages: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had named him a replacement All-Star, filling in for injured New York Knick Kristaps Porzingis.
Didn’t mind waiting
Three All-Stars from the Eastern Conference – John Wall, Kevin Love and Porzingis – had to drop out because of injury before Walker got the invitation. That was more a reflection of the Hornets’ losing record than Walker’s value. His statistics are comparable to last season, when the East coaches voted him into the All-Star Game as a first-time reserve.
Those stats – 22.9 points, 5.8 assists, 38 percent from 3-point range – reflect how hard Walker has worked each summer to improve. Then-Hornets assistant coach Mark Price, another little guy who excelled as an NBA point guard, warned Walker early in his career that if he didn’t develop offensive variety –a midrange game, a better 3-point shot – he wouldn’t survive physically always launching himself at the rim against those real giants.
The single most dramatic improvement has been Walker’s 3-point percentage. He was a poor 3-point shooter as recently as the 2014-15 season, shooting 30 percent from long range. In the three seasons since then, he has never shot worse than 37 percent, on the high end of that scale. That changes how defenders must deal with him in the pick-and-roll; they can no longer afford to go under picks because that leaves Walker wide open for the 3-ball.
The All-Star break is the one real vacation NBA players get between October and at least April. It’s common practice for players to fly to the Caribbean for at least a long weekend. But Walker kept saying he was available if the NBA wanted him in Los Angeles as an injury replacement.
When he finally got that call, I asked Walker what he gets out of being an All-Star. His answer made the trip to Los Angeles sound like a business trip.
“Whenever you get to be around guys like LeBron James or Melo (Carmelo Anthony), who was there last year, Kyle Lowry – guys who have been around – there is nothing better,” Walker said. “Guys who know what it takes to win in this league, who have been in multiple All-Star Games.
“To have the chance to pick their brains? To interact with them? I don’t get to see those guys on a regular basis. To get that chance is very special.”
Hornets coach Steve Clifford said the recognition is great for Walker, but the learning experience is better.
“It’s greatness. It’s exceptionality,” Clifford said of being in an All-Star Game.
“One of the reasons he’s become the player he has is that attitude: He goes there to learn. ... If you use it the right way, it can be such a worthwhile weekend.”