Hawks power forward Antoine Walker returned to Boston last Friday looking slimmer and more disciplined than he had during his seven years with the Celtics. The leading scorer on the East's worst team, he was auditioning for a return engagement at his first NBA home. "It's a big year," says the 6'9", 245-pound Walker, who could be a valuable commodity at the trade deadline for a team hoping to clear his $14.6 million salary off the books when he becomes a free agent this summer.
Walker, 28, has been adrift since he and Paul Pierce brought the Celtics to within two games of the 2002 Finals. He was intent on making a mark in the community--he says his charitable foundation raised $3 million in Boston--and hoped one day to see his jersey raised to the rafters. (During the game on Friday he made a joke of inspecting the jersey of rookie power forward Al Jefferson, who has his old number 8.) Walker insists he is now more interested in landing a permanent role than in signing for the biggest payday: "I don't want to move around no more."
Walker was averaging 20.2 points (on 42.1% shooting), 9.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists at week's end, but he also ranked sixth in the league in turnovers (3.6 per game) and 16th in three-pointers attempted (5.4). "He takes some that make me want to jump out there and grab him," says coach Mike Woodson. Adds Atlanta veteran Kevin Willis, "He has to get rid of the reputation that he's just threes, threes, threes. He's still trying to find where he stands in the league among the top players, but when he takes it seriously, he can do some amazing things."
A winning team with a disciplined coach could do wonders for Walker; few players are more versatile or competitive. He kept the Hawks alive against the Celtics with game highs of 17 rebounds and eight assists to go with his 21 points, including a defensive rebound that he took coast-to-coast for a layup. While few big men could duplicate that play, most stars would have done better than his 10-for-30 showing from the floor. Walker missed all five of his three-pointers and a dozen layups and runners as Atlanta fell 106-94.
January 24, 2005
At least he can take solace from the fact that the Celtics have also foundered since his departure. "I miss playing with Antoine a lot," says Pierce. "Now I'm looking for a new guy to bring along, sort of like how Antoine brought me along."