By Sam Perley
At one time or another, most everybody has reached a goal that they set out to achieve.
For Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker, that goal was making the NBA All-Star Game, an accomplishment he officially checked off his career bucket list midway through the 2016-17 season.
Occasionally, players might be prone to leveling off or regressing a bit after a particularly great or career-best season. Just don’t expect that from Walker this year though. The now seventh-year veteran says he doesn’t feel any heightened expectations coming off the first All-Star appearance by a Charlotte player since 2010.
“I don’t feel pressure. I just play basketball. I try and go out there each and every day and give it what I got. I’ve probably been playing at a high level for a couple of years now. I’m just going to do whatever I [can] to try and help my team win basketball games,” said Walker.
The UConn product has always been routinely quick to credit his fellow Hornets for any and all individual success that comes his way.
“My teammates are a huge part of what I do. My teammates are the reason I was an All-Star last year. If we can continue that, things will be fine. All-Star isn’t really on my mind. That’s not really super important to me. I just want to get back to the playoffs. That’s the most important goal because we’re a playoff team. That’s what we’re reaching towards,” he added.
Charlotte Head Coach Steve Clifford worked with a number of multi-time All-Stars during his 12-year run as an NBA assistant, including current-Hornet Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis, Yao Ming, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. He firmly believes Walker’s attitude and mindset will push him to reach new heights as his career keeps unfolding.
“This league is about being able to play well for 82 games and then being able to play for another year and another year and another year. I think a guy like him who has a passion and a hunger to be an elite player, I think that’s what his whole career revolves around,” said Clifford.
Howard, who was named an All-Star in eight-consecutive seasons from 2007-14, provided insight on what some players go through after reaching this particular milestone and what they can do to avoid dropping off.
“The biggest thing is not to overthink. I think a lot of times when you make that All-Star Game and people start looking at you like a certain type of player, you want to make sure you perform great every night,” said Howard. “Some nights, you might have a bad game. It’s not overthinking the situation. It’s knowing that ‘Hey, I am an All-Star’ and ‘Hey, I am a great player.’ Just go out there and play [your] game and do what got [you] to the All-Star Game.”
The Hornets center added, “When you try to do too much and overthink, that’s when you tend to mess up. At this point, everybody knows who Kemba is. They know what he can do as a player. He doesn’t have to prove anything. He just has to go out there and play his game.”
Although Walker is coming off a second-straight summer in which he underwent left knee surgery, teammate Nicolas Batum hasn’t seen any limitations from his starting backcourt partner.
“I think his knee doesn’t bother him like it used to the last two years. That’s pretty huge,” said Batum on Sept. 28. “He wants to win so bad and you can feel it. This is my third training camp with him [and] it’s different. I don’t know how to explain that, but it’s different. When your best player is playing [with such] intensity, we all got to play that way. We’ve had three good days [of training camp] so far because of him.”
Since Batum arrived in Charlotte in the summer of 2015, he’s witnessed a noticeable amount of personal growth in Walker – particularly over the last two years.
“He’s talking a lot and the last two years, he took over the team like he was supposed to. His first three or four years, he was learning the game. For the last two years, you can see by his numbers, he’s a top-10 point guard in this league now. He’s going to be even better this year.”
Walker did profess one area he’d like to improve upon this season is his leadership. He alluded to occasionally getting too down last year when the team struggled, but is more conscious now of staying upbeat even when adversity strikes.
“I need to be consistent [to become a better leader]. I just want to be the same guy each and every day. That’s what I’m looking to do. I’m looking to push my teammates as much as I [can] every single day. Be vocal as much as I can every day, just keep positive energy [and] positive vibes in the locker room even when we lose. Even when things aren’t going well, I want to be the guy who kind of keeps things in the right track and keeps this team going.”
Ever since he took over the team in 2013, Clifford has always preached the importance of getting better over the course of the season and that the best NBA teams are the ones who always keep making improvements. It’s fitting that his All-Star point guard’s career is following a similar sort of trajectory with Walker continually focused on getting better and better day by day, year by year.