Charlotte Hornets

Two things that define Charlotte Hornet Kemba Walker make All-Star start special, too

Two things that define what matters to Kemba Walker were on display Thursday night when he discussed being named a first-time starter in the NBA All-Star Game:

This is special because his fellow players put him over the top. Also, this is special because the game is in Charlotte.

Walker was no lock to to be selected in a weighted vote of fans, media members and current NBA players. Fan votes, collected via the Internet, would have instead awarded an Eastern Conference starter’s spot to Miami’s Dwyane Wade in a sentimental gesture for Wade’s final NBA season. But players and media voted for Walker in large enough numbers to overcome those fan votes.

That resonated with Walker.

“The respect from my peers is what means a lot to me. To have their respect, I think that’s huge,” Walker said in a conference call with Charlotte media.

“That’s what I care most about — respect of my peers. Those are the people out there on the floor playing against me.”

The other thing that will distinguish the Feb. 17 game at Spectrum Center from Walker’s two previous All-Star appearances is the chance to represent his adopted hometown as the first Hornet to start an All-Star Game since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004.

Walker has talked often about the deep affection and attachment he feels toward both Charlotte and the Hornets. Then called the Bobcats, the franchise selected him ninth overall in the 2011 draft, largely at the advocacy of team owner and NBA icon Michael Jordan.

Jordan has spoken of recognizing traits in Walker — persistence, fearlessness, poise — that reminded him of his own storied playing career. Despite leading Connecticut to the national championship the spring before that draft, Walker was no sure thing to succeed in the NBA. In fact, the Hornets selected another player via trade, center Bismack Biyombo, higher than the selection they used on Walker.

Walker sees Thursday’s honor as further validation of Jordan’s and the organization’s faith eight years ago.

“This is the team that believed in me to start,” Walker said of the specialness of this game being in Charlotte. “(They) allowed me to play through my mistakes when I was younger, to grow as a player. (They) allowed me to become a leader on and off the court. Really believed in me.

“Obviously, other teams didn’t or they would have drafted me. I had no idea Charlotte would be the team that drafted me.”

Elite company

Walker was named an All-Star each of the prior two seasons: In 2017 by coaches’ vote as a reserve and last year as an injury replacement. He said both times the opportunity to mingle with the game’s best players in this setting were part of his ongoing education as a player.

This time he’ll be a headliner, after averaging 25 points and 5.7 assists in leading the Hornets to a 23-24 record so far, seventh-best in the East. He’ll join fellow East starters Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The five starters named from the Western Conference: LeBron James from the Los Angeles Lakers, Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors, James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Stephen Curry of the Warriors. Curry, a former NBA most valuable player, grew up in Charlotte and starred for Davidson.

Partially because of his 6-1 height, Walker wasn’t an elite recruit growing up in New York City until the summer before his senior year in high school, when he dominated some summer tournaments.

He dared to imagine moments like hearing his named called by TNT Thursday night, but that doesn’t mean he expected a career trajectory such as this.

“I definitely dreamed of moments like this. Every kid does, every basketball player does,” Walker reflected. “Did I expect it to become true? I can’t say that

“I just hoped through my hard work it would pay off. Higher heights each and every summer.”

Steady growth

That “each and every summer” phrase has become Walker’s mantra. His coaches — both Steve Clifford before and James Borrego now — always appreciated that Walker doesn’t get complacent, doesn’t think he has this all figured out, and that shows up in his off-season work habits.

The breakthrough came the summer between his fourth and fifth seasons when he labored relentlessly to improve his 3-point shot. He jumped in accuracy from 30.4 percent the 2014-15 season to 37.1 percent in 2015-16. The improved shooting range had a side benefit of punishing defenders for going under screens in the pick-and-roll, rather than fighting through them, making Walker even more dangerous off the drive.

Paired with that is a sense of humility about what he can still learn from others: When Borrego told Walker this summer there was a chance the Hornets could sign future Hall-of-Famer Tony Parker as his backup, Walker’s only response was an enthralled, “I get to learn from Tony Parker?!”

That’s who Walker is. It’s what Jordan sensed back in 2011. It’s also what made the Hornets hold on to him, rather deal him elsewhere a year ago at the trade deadline.

In all likelihood, it’s why come July, when Walker hits unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, he’ll keep calling Charlotte home with a fat new contract.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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