CHARLOTTE — For the moment, the jovial, locker room jokester that frequently jumps in reporter’s interviews to ask questions or shoots lighthearted barbs at his teammates’ wardrobes as they exit the locker room is gone.
So is the contagious smile and gregarious charisma that’s come to define Kemba Walker’s relationship with the media. His voice gets serious in tone as he’s looking down and pausing for a moment as if he’s carefully choosing his words.
The question causing the shift: “How tough have the losses of the last two years been for you?”
“It’s been tough. It’s hard. It’s hard being the worst team in the NBA for two years straight,” he says.
“Man …,” Walker says, his voice drowning out, visibly perturbed by the thoughts of all the losses he’s taken after arriving as a national champion. “But at the same time I know that situations like this happen. I’m just going to trust in God and wait. Just keep getting better, keep improving and I know that someday in the future we will be a good team.”
Winning has always been part of Walker’s identity. So is work.
After averaging 8.9 points per game his freshman year at Connecticut, he came back the next year and averaged 14.6. When people weren’t convinced he could play at the high-major level after his junior year of high school, he lit up the summer camp circuit.
“He never stopped working. He always kept working,” said Jeff Adrien, Walker’s Bobcats teammate, who played with him during his freshman season at Connecticut. “He never took no as an answer and he just kept working everyday, especially that one summer after his sophomore year where he was there the whole summer, focused, staying out of trouble on campus and now it’s history.”
The history that followed was one of the most spectacular individual seasons in memory. Regardless of the fact that he was playing on a young team, Walker came back and averaged 23.5 ppg. Included in that season-long highlight package of shakes, drives and jumpers was the play that came to define that season for Walker –- the infamous crossover, step-back jumper that not only went in but left Pitt’s Gary McGhee in an ankles-crossed heap. That game-winner propelled UConn to the Big East Tournament Championship and weeks later to a national championship.
“I think that’s what everybody knows me for, just that one play,” Walker said. “I hear about that play all the time. On Twitter, people always writing me about how they remember that one play.”
It was that focus that drove Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest competitor the sport has ever seen, to draft Walker with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft.
Since then, the same upward trajectory that Walker displayed at Connecticut has been on display in Charlotte. His rookie season was a struggle as he shot 36 percent from the field, and 30 percent on three-pointers, on his way to 12.1 ppg.
Year 2 found him with a new coach in Mike Dunlap and all of Walker’s numbers are up, averaging 17.6 points, 5.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds and shooting 42.4 percent from the floor and 33 percent from deep.
It’s a year-two jump that closely resembles his Connecticut days and one that should have him squarely in the hunt for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award.
“Kemba’s been great. The things he does as a point guard, you forget that it’s only his second year,” forward Josh McRoberts said. “You kind of step back and think ‘Man, this is only his second year.’ He’s far beyond that in terms of what he can do. You get to the end of the game and you feel like as long as it’s close you have a great chance because of the things that he does on the court. It’s a lot of fun to watch him and play with him.”
Said Dunlap, “Our two areas with Kemba were the pick and roll, to be able to use that to pitch and also find the roll man and I think he’s improved dramatically in that area. Second, as a quarterback, he’s got to be able to use his voice and know that this is his team. And there’s no doubt about that.”
Walker couldn’t claim the reins last season, splitting time with D.J. Augustin. But with more freedom and a freedom to play through mistakes this season, Walker’s flourished in the leadership role and on the floor. It’s been especially noticeable recently with he and teammate Gerald Henderson putting together a scorching March that resulted in a 4-2 home record during that stretch.
“We play off of each other really well. We just want to win, man,” Walker said. “So we’re just trying to do anything possible to win. And as of late we’ve just been really good offensively. We’re just trying to keep it up. We’re just trying to win, trying to find ways to win.”
That’s why even though he’s only in his second year everyone has turned to Walker. They’ve seen how much losing hurts him. He’s usually the last one to emerge from his locker after a loss, towel draped over his head.
“He’s a leader on the court and off the court,” rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said. “He’s my vet and I’m his rook. That’s how I see it.”
Regardless of how many times the Bobcats have been knocked down in the last two seasons, Walker remains the same kid in the park in the Bronx, getting knocked down but never staying there.
“I saw a lot of things growing up, pretty tough neighborhood. Just growing up playing with a lot of older guys all the time, those guys always just beat me up of course, me being a small guy,” Walker said. “I think that helped me become the person and player I am today.”
The player he’s become is the Bobcats’ future. If Year 3 is anything like what Adrien saw Walker do at his alma mater, he could be up for most improved again next season, and the Bobcats could be too.
“You can definitely build a team around him,” Adrien said. “He did it at one level. I believe that he can do it at the next level, too, as long as he keeps getting better.”