Finally home, Kemba Walker hopes to turn back clock with Knicks

Finally home, Kemba Walker hopes to turn back clock with Knicks

On the dais, his shoulders looked awfully broad for a point guard who's fairly miniature in stature.

But anyone who knows Kemba Walker — as a Rice High School standout or as a young prep coming of age in the Soundview section of the Bronx — has always known the truth.

He makes up for his size with his fight. For a long, long time, that’s been obvious.

“The last couple years have been tough for me,” Walker said as he looked upon the sea of reporters who attended the New York Knicks’ media day.

What an understatement. 

In two years, Walker went from having a career-year and being named to the All-NBA Third Team, to being a player who had to have a first-round pick attached to him in order to be traded.

In some ways, the end is fitting, though. Walker’s journey — from the Sack-Wern housing projects to the University of Connecticut — ended up being circuitous, after all.

Entering his 11th season, at 31 years old, Walker finally comes home. One of the city’s own, he joins a Knicks team that has put itself on the radar in relatively short order. Led by reigning Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau and Most Improved Player Julius Randle, New York will attempt to ride the talents of Randle, RJ Barrett and the rest of the club that few around the Association believe is for real.

A team that's still obviously a work in progress, the hope among those who are rooting for the Knicks is that Walker’s tough two-year stint in Boston was a bump in the road, not a sign of what’s to come.

Way back on draft night in 2011, when Walker became an NBA player, he hosted a post-draft party at one of Lower Manhattan’s hotspots. Everyone from his fellow draft mates to Chris Paul was in attendance. The league and its players' union knew that the most likely outcome was that the 2011 season would be delayed due to a lockout, and the incoming class of rookies knew it too. 

But Walker didn’t let that dampen his mood. He'd made it. And he was especially appreciative of Michael Jordan for “taking a chance on him.”

It seems like ancient history, but back then, there were many who wondered whether Walker would be able to supplant D.J. Augustin as the lead guard for then-Charlotte Bobcats. In his run up to the NBA Draft, Walker heard it all — he was too small, his game wouldn’t translate, his weaknesses were too great to overcome. 

Those questions resulted in less-proven players being taken ahead of him, and he then realized that neither his unprecedented five wins in five nights in the Big East Tournament, nor the ensuing national championship he won at UConn would cause the questions to cease.

He had to do it in the NBA. And in the end, that’s exactly what he did.

All his life, Walker has been proving his doubters wrong, and now, he’ll attempt to do it in his hometown.

“I’m home,” he said on Monday. “I’m already focused. Last couple years have been kinda rough for me, obviously with my knee, [but] I’m locked in, ready to go, ready to play at a high level.”

The Knicks will need every bit of it.

Coming off of a disappointing loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of last season’s playoffs, general manager Scott Perry saw Atlanta’s growth up close and personally. He then saw a great many of the conference’s teams improve this past summer. 

The Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets are obviously entering the season as the favorites, while the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat are expected to be greatly improved. 

The Philadelphia 76ers are obviously dealing with the Ben Simmons saga, but even without getting a king’s ransom in return for what appears to be an eventual trade, they should be one of the top teams out East. Even the Washington Wizards are entering the season with some optimism.

The question for the Knicks this season is whether they’ve done enough to keep up. And they’ll be counting on Walker to provide the answer.

During their run last season, New York was ultimately undone by their lack of depth from the point guard position. Their hope is that Walker’s ability to attack the basket and create space against his defenders — assuming he still can — will be tools that should allow him to get easy looks for his teammates. That’s not something the Knicks got against Atlanta, and both Randle and Barrett stand to benefit from allowing Walker to create off the dribble.

Perhaps it’s fate that now, at 31 years old and with the deck stacked against him, is when Walker will be charged with the task.

Since taking over in New York, Perry’s modus operandi has been to buy low on players whose perceived potential was greater than the results they were believed to be able to produce as pros. Randle ended up being buried treasure. They struck oil with Rose. But Bobby Portis, Mario Hezonja and Elfrid Payton? Not so much.

Nonetheless, overall, the strategy has worked. But at this point, we obviously don’t know which bucket Walker will end up in.

Fittingly now, only two years removed from being an All-NBA selection, the four-time All-Star will come back to the city where it all began for him in an attempt to recapture past glory.

Peddled by Brad Stevens, the former Boston Celtics coach-turned-team-president admitted defeat. Boston made a mistake by signing Walker to a four-year, $141 million contract in 2019. At least, that was the message. Stevens attached a first-round pick to him in order to get the Oklahoma City Thunder to agree to take Walker’s pact in return for Al Horford — a player that Boston coincidentally let go in 2019. Stevens wanted a mulligan.

Truth be told, Oklahoma City isn’t high on any player’s list of cities to spend the latter stages of their career. But still, it’s hard to imagine any player not feeling a bit slighted to learn that a team would rather pay him $50 million to go away than keep him around. 

Walker, though, obviously wasn’t complaining. When Oklahoma City bought him out, according to the Bronx native, New York was the only option he’d considered. 

The upstart club, for a change, had a duo of budding stars that just led an overachieving group to a playoff berth that didn’t seem certain a year ago. With other young players showing promise — Mitchell Robinson, Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin among them — any observer can truly see the Knicks from afar and wonder what they can be.

And when Walker looked around and realized he wasn’t wanted, he probably did too.

As the Knicks began their 2021-22 season, he sat in his orange and blue jersey. The threads were unfamiliar, but ironically, he looked quite comfy.

“I'm from here, born and raised,” he said.

And in the end, needing one another, Walker and the Knicks united at the right time.

Defying the odds from the beginning, Kemba Walker — New York City’s own — went back to where it all began.

And there, in New York, a city and a franchise starved for a winner, he hopes that he can do it once again.

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