Charlotte Hornets

Kemba Walker rising as Charlotte Hornets improve

Brooklyn Nets' Donald Sloan (15) defends against Charlotte Hornets' Kemba Walker (15) during Sunday’s game in New York.
Brooklyn Nets' Donald Sloan (15) defends against Charlotte Hornets' Kemba Walker (15) during Sunday’s game in New York. AP

So I asked Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford if he sees something different in New York native Kemba Walker when he plays in the Big Apple.

Not so much the Big Apple, Clifford replied. More, the Big Stage.

“The bigger the stage,” Clifford said following the Hornets’ 104-96 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. “The grass-roots people have always said that. From Rice (high school in The Bronx) to UConn to here. I just think the bigger the game …

“But he definitely likes to come home.”

New York was once the mecca of basketball, churning out the dozens of great college players and emerging pros. That has somewhat dried up, as illustrated by New Yorker Lance Stephenson’s struggles since leaving the Indiana Pacers.

Walker is pretty special, having scored 20 or more points in 26 games this season for the Hornets. He just gets that much more exciting, it seems, in New York state.

It started in a state high school championship game. Then the whole country witnessed him drag Connecticut to that Big East championship in Madison Square Garden, en route to the national championship.

Sunday didn’t have those stakes – the Nets are a very beatable 15-41 – but Walker was huge down the stretch. He hit a 3-pointer with 1 minute, 46 seconds left to push the Hornets’ lead back to double-digits.

Then he drew the defense on a drive to the rim and flipped a pocket pass to center Cody Zeller, who had set the pick. The pass was so well-timed, there was nothing between Zeller and the rim on his put-away dunk.

So what about it, Kemba? Does your hometown still geek you up?

“I was just playing ball. As the game (got close) I had to make plays,” Walker said. “It had nothing to do with me being at home. It was about wanting to win a game and being able to make shots.”

Walker has played with grace on some bad NBA teams. He’s accountable after losses and speaks kindly of teammates in good and bad times. He appreciates that with Nic Batum (who flirted with a triple-double Sunday) and Jeremy Lin, he no longer has to do everything to facilitate the offense.

Yet he is still that guy who doesn’t shy away from taking huge shots at the end of close games, and he makes his share.

The Hornets are relevant again. They have won a season-high five games overall and four on the road to improve to 29-26.

If they continue to perform as they have of late and manage to avoid more major injuries (that’s never been true so far this season), they will make the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Then it gets really interesting. They are no longer a team that can only win with defense. They’re going to set a team record for 3s made this season and now, with center Al Jefferson back from knee surgery, they can establish an inside-outside offensive balance that a lot of NBA teams no longer possess.

Jefferson’s right knee is pain-free for the first time in over a year. He has regained his agility, which Clifford calls Jefferson’s best physical attribute. That was apparent Sunday, with him making nine of 13 shots from the field for 18 points.

The Hornets have many good players. But Jefferson, two years removed from third-team All-NBA, knows who tops the list.

“Kemba? That’s our superstar right there,” Jefferson said Sunday.

With some support from Jefferson, Batum and Lin, maybe Walker can live up to his center’s description come May.

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