This season of dizzying and unending turmoil in Charlotte has proven that no matter if his coach is forced to take a health-related leave of absence, his name winds up in trade rumors, or the man who drafted him gets canned, Kemba Walker is going to keep competing.
The Charlotte Hornets stopped playing games that mattered a while ago. But while he enters every season craving that postseason stage, Walker has never been one to skimp on his effort just because the payoff isn’t coming. Been that way since he was getting buckets on the team with the worst winning percentage in NBA history. Been that way since the Bobcats became the Hornets again. Been that way as the past two seasons have ended with him angrily watching playoff games on his couch.
“It’s tough. It’s tough. Not being there. I hate being home watching it,” Walker recently told Yahoo Sports. “But we still got to grind, man.”
It might have taken the 72nd game of the season — against a depleted, scrap heap of a team that might find better success in the G League — for Walker’s steady, unyielding drive to get recognized. But it’s better late than never. True, Walker was named an All-Star for the second straight season, but the praise got muted by the Hornets’ putrid play and the fact that he made the squad after the league had to go four-deep into injury replacements. On Thursday, Walker had a moment that won’t soon be forgotten — by him, his mother Andrea, Hornets fans, or the record book — as he needed only three quarters, or just under 28 minutes, to score 46 points and hit a franchise record 10 3-pointers to lead the Hornets to a 61-point victory over the tanking-to-the-extreme Memphis Grizzlies.
Andrea Walker started a “Kemba” chant in the fourth quarter for her son to return to the game in an effort to score the seven points needed to set a new career high. But thankfully, coach Steve Clifford didn’t oblige. Instead, Walker will always be able to ponder what could’ve been, adding some mystique to a shining moment in an eyesore of a season.
This season has been filled with what-could’ve-been moments — for different reasons — for the Hornets, a franchise that has regressed since reaching the playoffs as a spunky sixth seed in 2016. That run, which ended with a seven-game, first-round loss against Miami, turned out to be something close to fool’s gold because it convinced owner Michael Jordan to open up his wallet and hand out some regretful contracts that continue to cripple the upward mobility of the franchise and nearly made Walker expendable this season as a trade sweetener in a budget-slashing move. No teams bit when the Hornets dangled their best player, freeing Walker from the devastation of leaving his only NBA home.
“It happens. Happens with everybody, I think. [There are] only a few untradeable guys in our league. Only probably just a handful. I guess it had to happen one day,” Walker told Yahoo Sports about trade speculation. “After a couple of days, I’m just like, whatever. I just wanted to play for my teammates and my coaching staff and not really think about it. I was just going out, doing what I do, try to play the highest level I can. I mean, what can do you? It’s rumors. If they were going to trade me, they were, but they didn’t. I’m still here. I’m here and I’m here to play as hard as I can for my teammates and my coaching staff and the organization.”
The Hornets had hoped that pairing Walker with a potentially rejuvenated Dwight Howard would help the team sneak back into the postseason in a wide-open Eastern Conference. Those plans were interrupted by a slow start, and later a health scare from stress and sleep deprivation that forced Clifford to step away from the team for 18 games. “Just been a lot of adjusting and adapting throughout the year,” Walker told Yahoo Sports. “When Coach went out, I tried to my best at being an extension of him. And that’s really all I can do. It didn’t change much for me.
“He was dealing with some difficulties obviously, dealing with some problems, but it was more on my end, just encouraging him, hoping he got well. And he did,” Walker told Yahoo Sports. “He needed us. That’s our leader. He’s our head coach and we feed off him. He has great energy. He’s an awesome coach and even better guy. So it was great when he came back.”
Clifford’s return and Walker’s consistent play weren’t enough to lift the Hornets in the standings or spare former general manager Rich Cho from getting fired in early February. Cho scored when he selected Walker during his first draft in 2011, but the lottery picks in subsequent years either foundered or failed to make a tangible impact on the team. That has left an immense burden on Walker, who refuses to make excuses or seek sympathy for his plight. If he didn’t run after a seven-win, lockout-shortened rookie season in 2011-12, this wasn’t the time to go into hiding either.
“I just lead by example. Try to go out there and play as hard as I can,” Walker told Yahoo Sports. “Hopefully, I just get guys to follow.”
The Hornets haven’t officially been eliminated from playoff contention. But it’s really just a matter of when, not if. Walker, however, won’t be looking to lead Charlotte into a better lottery position. He won’t have another performance this season like he had against Memphis. But just as he only needed three quarters to make his point, he has already let it be known that he won’t hold back because the situation looks bleak. “We’re going to play as hard as we can, try to win. That’s all we can do. We still believe in each other,” Walker told Yahoo Sports. “And we’re going to keep going until it’s over.”
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