AVON, Conn. -- Even after the group drills, autographs, Q&A sessions and a soft-spoken farewell address were complete, some of the almost 120 campers in attendance at last week's clinic still hadn't gotten enough of Kemba Walker. Several followed him out into the lobby outside Roaring Brook School's small gymnasium, with one asking Walker to "say hello to Michael Jordan for him."
Walker may have been a newly minted millionaire -- at least in theory after the Charlotte Bobcats drafted him ninth overall just before the start of the NBA lockout -- but on this evening, he was the same humble, accessible guard who led Connecticut in one of the
"He's the nicest guy in the freaking world," said Tim Leahy, founder of All Pro Sports, which organized the clinic. "I couldn't believe how nice he was. A lot of these guys are very nice and then you deal with them and they're not so nice."
Charlotte is banking on Walker's niceness, on and off the court, translating into significant NBA success, and some notable voices expect that to occur, despite obvious warning signs that made Walker one of the most interesting debates in this year's draft.
On draft night, ESPN's Chad Ford praised the Bobcats for their addition of Walker (and raw teenage defensive specialist Bismack Biyombo), noting the team had improved its toughness and added a winner. By phone this week, both ESPN analyst Jay Bilas and Walker's former head coach, Jim Calhoun, mentioned that Walker's constitution -- his mental and physical toughness, leadership and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good -- should help him overcome his lack of size at the next level.
"Kemba's [always] been a 'we' guy, he's been a 'we' player. His sophomore year, he played on a 'me' team and nobody was talking about Kemba Walker at the end of that year," Bilas said. "Then he leads a team that was very much a 'we' team. Even though he scored 30 points a game early on, he helped develop guys around him. He's a big reason Jeremy Lamb developed, because he allowed himself to be coached. All of a sudden, every individual got rewarded because of the we-first attitude they had."
Can those intangibles help overcome what also appears to be a lack of a defined position? Walker, to this point, is a question mark as a classic distributor at the NBA level, and he doesn't have the size or shoot nearly well enough to play the "2." That seems to place him in more of a Jason Terry or Bobby Jackson-style combo role, although both are better jump shooters (in Terry's case, much better). In painting a projection, though, Calhoun warns not to undersell Walker's lead guard traits.
"People who don't think he's a point guard are probably making a mistake in the sense that he can set other [players] up, run a team's offense, [he's a] very [good] defensive player," Calhoun said. "There's no reason for me to believe that he can't do some of the same things he did for us for three years."
Perhaps most concerning when it comes to a Walker projection is how those most comparable to him at the college-level faired as professionals. The track record of small, efficient, high-usage guards translating into good pros is very weak. The following chart shows Walker and his best high-major conference comparables (both statistically and size-wise) from the past seven seasons, since Kenpom.com began posting individual player efficiency statistics:
None of these other four guys, for various reasons, ever did much of anything in the NBA. The related concern is that all four comparables featured better perimeter games than Walker, who was much more efficient off the bounce this past season, despite marked improvement in his jump shot.
Even if you extend the comparisons that include players with some college statistical similarity who have gone on to have better NBA careers -- like Stephen Curry, Eric Maynor, George Hill and Jameer Nelson -- we're still not talking about true stars and we're again looking at much better shooters than Walker. As quick as he is, it's unlikely Walker will be able to finish at the rim as consistently as he did in college, so he will need to take significant steps as a creator and/or jump shooter to be truly viable offensively.
That said, Walker is a better defender than the others on that list and he also will have the advantage of time. Charlotte is in the midst of what appears to be a multi-year, teardown-and-rebuild project, with at least the next two seasons looking very bleak. The current roster is extremely scoring deficient, so Walker's ability to push tempo and create offense both for himself and others in transition may be crucial to the team's competitiveness. He should see considerable minutes as a rookie and Charlotte can take a lengthy look at how he coexists on the roster with Augustin before having to make a decision on their diminutive guards somewhere down the line.
On this particular night in this leafy Hartford suburb, though, none of this matters. There's just a bunch of kids who are thrilled to see one of their basketball heroes in the flesh. A year ago, none of this seemed remotely possible. Walker was an afterthought on a selfish and self-destructive UConn team that plummeted into the NIT. Now he stood here as the undisputed leader of a national champion. So plenty of legitimate questions aside, why can't Walker defy the odds one more time?
"He's bigger than a number of guys who have had success [in the NBA], Bilas said. "I think a smaller guard has more to overcome, but guys have done it. ... To me, it's not a question of if he'll be successful. It's a matter of how successful he'll be."