by Sean Brown
In a wild college basketball season that saw the clear-cut favorite (Duke) become a question mark due to the loss of Kyrie Irving, consensus contenders like Michigan State unravel and a program like San Diego State explode, one thing has been constant: Kemba Walker reigns supreme. The 6-1, 172-pound point guard has been a scoring giant in the NCAA and single-handedly lifted his UConn team time after time. It all started with the Maui Invitational in November, when the Bronx native had a performance that was legendary to say the least. Floaters, buzzer beaters, dimes and clutch threes forecast highs for Kemba and lows for his opponents this season. “The first game against Wichita State I was in foul trouble and they started to pull away,” says Walker, who scored 31 against the Shockers. “We have a young team so I knew once I got back in, I had to take over.”
He hasn’t looked back since. For a player who was not recognized as a pre-season All-American, Kemba has put this UConn team on his back so often that his nickname should be JanSport.
Now in his junior season, Walker has proven to be not just a point guard, but a dominant player in every aspect of the game. He averaged UConn-high per-game numbers of 23.9 points, 4.5 assists and 1.9 steals (and grabbed 5.3 rebounds for good measure).
Although Walker’s limelight is the brightest this season, he was bred to be the pulse of a relatively young Huskies team prior to ever suiting up in a UConn uniform. The instinct of any great New York City point guard is, when given the chance, show out, and that is exactly what Kemba has done by fully accepting his role as a New York City hoop prodigy turned big-time go-to guy. Long before the weekly scoring showcases and National Player of the Year talk, Kemba Walker was a star at Rice High in New York City.
It’s a storyline familiar to the mecca of big-time hoops, but Walker is the result of an Empire State basketball factory that hasn’t seen much production as of late. The pressure of being a New York City point guard is intense, with a hoop Mt. Rushmore that includes the likes of Mark Jackson, Stephon Marbury, Kenny Smith and Rod Strickland. Walker is well aware that all eyes are on him, but he feels no stress to perform: “Being from the city is a special feeling. There hasn’t been anyone in a while but I don’t feel any pressure. I just play ball.”
Walker has brought the excitement back to borough natives who had the pleasure of watching him get it done with the Gauchos AAU program and on the summer circuit by being arguably the most exciting player in college basketball this season. And he says he feels the love more than ever: “It’s great when I come home and people show me so much love. Kids say I inspire them to work harder. It’s great.”
Walker’s success is a result of a mixture of raw talent molded by experience from hard work and having the type of hustle owned only by a basketball player set to graduate in three years. He has the special ability to observe by playing behind someone (as Kemba did as a frosh behind current Pacer AJ Price) learning something from them and immediately incorporating it into his game. “Playing behind someone gave me a path to get better,” Walker says confidently. “When it’s my time to go, I make sure I’ve improved and am ready to work.”
Aside from playing a secondary role early in his college career, he learned from some of the NBA’s elite this summer while playing on the college USA Select Team. Preparing the USA Basketball team for the FIBA World Basketball Championships gave Walker an opportunity to take notes from the League’s best point guards. “I learned a lot from Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose,” says Walker, who projects as a sure-fire Lottery pick if he comes out after this season. “Just the pace of the game, changing speeds and switching gears has really helped me this season.”
With March and Tournament time here, Walker has his team into another gear—overdrive. “The Big East games have definitely prepared us for March,” he says. “It’s crazy. There’s no night off in the Big East. It’s helping prepare us as a team. Anybody can win, it’s the same way when the Tournament comes.”
Walker is solely focused on keeping his UConn team alive and winning, but he can’t shrug off his competitive nature when asked about an impending future in the NBA. “I know I can be a quality point guard in the NBA,” Walker says confidently. “People question my size but I’ll be fine. Height has nothing to do with anything. I have a lot of heart.”
That heart beats for an entire team and will keep the crown on Kemba Walker. Where it is rightfully deserved.