Something happened along the journey from Storrs, Connecticut to Charlotte, North Carolina. The shiny afterglow that had surrounded Kemba Walker after his heroics in the Big East and NCAA tournaments, and followed him to the NBA Draft where he was selected 9th overall by the Charlotte Bobcats, seemed to disappear when put under the microscope of the League. Kemba was always highly touted for his passing ability, but managed a measly 4 assists per game in his rookie year. He was always a guy that could be relied on to hit the big shot, but made only 36% from the floor. Overall, he was expected to be a lot more effective than what his 14.9 PER indicates he was.
But perhaps, as is often the case with young, talented players, the expectations were too high. After all, what Michael Jordan and the rest of the Bobcats’ front office wanted most out of Walker was for him to instill his winning ways into the beleaguered franchise. Surely this was too much to put on the shoulders of a 20-year old rookie, whose UConn team was arguably more talented than the “professional” players he was surrounded by.
Whatever the case may have been, it was clear that the Bobcat’s were much less enthusiastic about Walker going into this season than the last. Over the summer, they courted Ramon Sessions from Los Angeles, which seemed like a clear vote of no confidence towards Walker. Still, somewhat surprisingly, Kemba Walker made it out of preseason with the starting job. This is despite continuing his unimpressive performances, repeating his 36% field goal percentage from the year before and averaging a pathetic 3.6 assists per game. But performance be damned, as MJ and new coach Mike Dunlap still favored Walker over his competition.
He would quickly reward their decision.
As the 2012 season tipped off, it seemed like a switch flipped inside Kemba Walker. He came bursting out of the gates, dropping 30 points en route to a win against last year’s Eastern Conference semi-finalist Indiana Pacers. The assists finally picked up too, as his totals from the first three games went up from 3 to 5 to 8. In fact, through the first eight games of the season, Walker has seen a significant increase across the board, with his field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounds, assists, steals and points all going up from the previous year.
But what really marked the return of Cardiac Kemba, the kid so many basketball fans fell in love with during the 2010 NCAA season, was performance this previous Wednesday. On the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kemba and the Cats seemed on their way to an easy victory, nursing a 13-point lead going into the fourth quarter. But the young team took their foot off the gas pedal too soon, and allowed Minnesota to tie the game off a 19-5 run. With the clock running down, and the game tied 87-87, Walker called for an iso at the top of the key. What followed was an almost step-for-step recreation of the final moments in UConn’s Big East quarterfinal victory over Pitt two years before. Marked up by Alexey Shved, Kemba faked the drive on his right side, before snapping the ball back across his body, winding up almost dead center with the basket. With the defender left in the dust, Walker was clear for a mid-range jumper that hit nothing but net.
This was what Charlotte Bobcats’ fans had been waiting for. After adding instant-impact rookies Jeffrey Taylor and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, along with former Sixth Man of the Year Ben Gordon, they finally have a team they can be proud of. This was the epitome of the confidence, IQ, and winning spirit that had seemingly been missing the entire year before. After all, he was stripped of the tremendous off-season learning opportunities that are crucial for a rookie’s successful transition into the League. But most of all, in his last second heroics against Minnesota, this was the return of Cardiac Kemba.