Kemba Will Make His Point
By David Borges
STORRS --- The chant began some time during the first half, emanating from a few rowdy UConn fans sitting in the student section at Gampel Pavilion.
"Kem-ba Walk-er! Kem-ba Walk-er!" it went, and it grew and grew in volume until nearly the entire student section was chiming in. "Kem-ba Walk-er! Kem-ba Walk-er!"
Not bad, considering Kemba Walker wasn't even on the UConn roster yet. In fact, he wasn't even a UConn student yet – Walker was still a senior at Rice High in the Bronx.
This was, after all, last November, during one of UConn's early-season games against the University of Buffalo. Walker was sitting behind the Huskies' bench on an official visit to the school to which he had already committed. Naturally, the chant in his honor didn't go unnoticed.
"I was excited," he recently recalled. "That had never happened to me before. I had never been to a college game on a visit, so that was an excellent feeling. I guess they were looking forward to seeing me play, basically."
Indeed, Walker's arrival at Storrs this fall was one of the most eagerly-anticipated for a UConn freshman basketball player in a while. He comes with terrific pedigree: McDonalds All-American, MVP of the FIBA Americas Under-18 Tournament, a winner, a leader, a "marvelous young man."
The latter quote comes from Davidson College head coach Bob McKillop, who coached Walker on the Under-18 USA squad this past summer. Listen to McKillop gush about Walker and you'd think the 6-foot-1 point guard was playing the wrong sport.
"He's a first-class gentleman, a leader," said McKillop. "Coaches love point guards who can score, but whose objective is to execute the system. He's a quarterback that gets into the pocket, picks out all three of his receivers, has the capacity to run but will be very cognizant that advancing the ball down the field is the objective of the quarterback. He seems to always make that right decision because he puts the team on top of his agenda."
UConn coach Jim Calhoun already has a special place in his heart for Walker. He calls him a "one-man fast break," and said the Huskies became a better passing team the day Walker signed his letter of intent.
A pair of preseason exhibition games have done nothing to prove McKillop or Calhoun wrong. Walker has been the best player on the floor in the Huskies' routine wins over American International College and UMass-Lowell, combining for 21 points, nine assists and just two turnovers as a sparkplug off the bench.
"And as good as he was," Calhoun said after the AIC game, "he'll get better."
Two Are Better Than One
Of course, the Huskies already have a pretty good point guard. Kid named A.J. Price, who was only a unanimous first team all-Big East player last season and a second team All-American.
Rather than create tension with a freshman pushing a senior for minutes, however, it appears Walker and Price will get along just swimmingly.
"Any time I can give him advice, I'll do it," Price said. "Just what to expect, what he can get away with, what he can't get away with. Anything I can do, I'll do, because he's going to be very good."
Price has started the first two exhibitions but has moved off the ball when Walker enters the game. It's easy to envision the two spending plenty of minutes together on the floor this season.
Of course, that's hardly a new thing for UConn. The Huskies' national championship teams of 1999 and 2004 each featured two point guards on the floor in Khalid El-Amin and Ricky Moore ('99) and Taliek Brown and Ben Gordon ('04). Doron Sheffer and Kevin Ollie also had great success together in the mid-90's.
"I like having two guys that can run a team," said Calhoun. "I just think it makes it easier. (Longtime Boston Celtics scout) Kevin Stacom said to me the one thing we didn't have in 2006 was another guard. We had Taliek and Ben, but that was it. Now, we have sometimes three guys on the court who can (run a team), because Craig Austrie will play with them, too."
Walker, only 18, has already proven he can be a vocal leader. While he's always deferential to the veterans – saying he has no problem not starting, that it's Price's team, that his time will come – he recently called out junior guard Jerome Dyson publicly for not being aggressive enough offensively.
Dyson seemed to heed Walker's words, scoring a game-high 18 points against UMass-Lowell.
"If somebody walked into the gym, you wouldn't know he's a freshman," senior forward Jeff Adrien said of Walker, with whom he's very close. "He's a very humble guy. He's done things in his high school days – USA basketball, McDonald's All-American – but he doesn't think he's going to run the team. He understands there's veteran guys, and he respects them and learns from those guys. He's learning from A.J., from Craig, from Jerome. You have a guy who's learning from guys like that, that's going to be good."
'A Young Chris Paul'
The one knock on Walker's game has been his shooting ability. Although he averaged 18.2 points per game in his career at Rice, his ability to knock down the long-range jumper has been questioned.
"That’s what was told to me as well," said McKillop, "But I thought he shot the ball very well for us. In situations where we needed a 3, he made them. It surprised me – in shooting drills, he wouldn't be great, yet when it came to game time, Kemba seemed to make everything he had to make."
Indeed, Calhoun believes Walker's the type of player who'll shoot better during games than in practice "because he's a gamer. He knows how to win."
Walker buried both his 3-point attempts against AIC and has proven particularly adept at knocking down lane jumpers in UConn's early-season scrimmages.
"In the Under-18's, that was a shot I usually took and made a lot," he said. "Out there, I got my confidence in taking that shot. Over here, I've been working on it a lot. I guess it's my shot now."
Throughout the preseason, Calhoun has often been asked which players Walker reminds him of.
"He's a combination of a lot of different guards," he noted. "He's quick, he really pushes as well as anyone we've had. Because of his size and stop-and-start ability, he kind of reminds you of a young Chris Paul. But now you're going to a guy who's become a very good player."
Calhoun is hesitant to compare Walker to any of UConn's past great point guards – except for one.
"He's similar to Doron in that he can hit you at 75 (feet)," Calhoun said. "A lot of kids are reluctant to do that because they want to show how well they can handle, but he'll throw the ball ahead, which I love. Then when he gets there, he can cross you and penetrate. The best thing he does is put offensive pressure on the other team. He comes at you. And you've got to pick him up, or he's going to the rim."
McKillop even rates Walker with his own star player at Davidson, preseason All-America junior guard Stephen Curry.
"Kemba's from the same mold. He has that tremendous balance between humility and confidence."
Still, McKillop isn't big on comparing one player to another.
"I hope," McKillop said, "that people down the road say about a guy, 'He's the next Kemba Walker.'"
David Borges can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org