By Matt Rochinski
HUSKY BECOMES A CAT
Expectations were high for Bobcats rookie guard Kemba Walker heading into the 2011-12 NBA season. Walker was coming off a memorable run for UConn in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, leading the Huskies to an NCAA Championship and earning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors after averaging 23.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.6 assists in six tourney games. For a team in need of an impactful offensive player, Walker seemed an ideal fit when the Bobcats selected him with the ninth pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Despite having to endure a lockout-shortened season and having limited practice time to adjust to the rigors of NBA life, Walker averaged 12.1 points, 4.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 66 games (25 starts) his rookie season.
KEMBA GETS ROLLING
Walker had a decent start to his NBA career, averaging 10.1 points, 2.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds in his first 12 games with the Cats before breaking out in a 112-100 win over Golden State on January 14 at Time Warner Cable Arena® with his first 20+ point game. He connected on 8-of-15 shots to score 23 points to go with five assists, four rebounds, two steals and no turnovers. From that point, Walker began a stretch where he scored in double-digits in 16 of 20 games, including six games with 20-or-more points while averaging 15.7 points, 4.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 turnovers.
The highlight of Walker’s run in January and February of 2012 came on January 28, when he recorded the only triple-double by a rookie last season in a 102-99 loss to Washington at Time Warner Cable Arena. Walker scored 20 points, dished out 11 assists and brought down 10 rebounds in 43 minutes of action.
With an average of 12.1 points, Walker was the fifth-leading scorer among 2011-12 rookies behind Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving (18.5), Detroit’s Brandon Knight (12.8), New Jersey’s Marshon Brooks (12.6) and Golden State’s Klay Thompson (12.5). Walker ranked third in assists (4.4) behind Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio (8.2) and Irving (5.4) but was not named to the 2012 NBA All-Rookie Team.
Walker was invited to play in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge on All-Star Weekend in Orlando and did not disappoint, recording a double-double with 10 points and a game-high 10 assists to go with five rebounds and two steals. Walker’s efforts did not result in a win for Team Shaq in the new format, as they fell 146-133 to Team Chuck on February 24, 2012.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Former Bobcats Head Coach Paul Silas tried to get the most he could out of Walker in his rookie season, utilizing him primarily as offense off the bench to spell starter D.J. Augustin, and even running with the two guards together late in contests. Augustin signed with Indiana this offseason and new Head Coach Mike Dunlap appears to be giving Kemba the keys to the Cats car, while Ramon Sessions was also brought in to run the point. In 25 games as starter last season, Walker averaged 14.7 points, 4.9 assists and 5.0 rebounds compared to 10.5 points, 4.0 assists and 2.7 rebounds in 41 games off the bench. Look for those numbers to go up even more, as Dunlap has stated he wants to utilize Walker more like they did at UConn, getting him to attack opposing defenses in the lane earlier in possessions.
“I think Coach (Dunlap) is doing a great job with us so far, teaching us so many different things and so many different concepts to get us ready for what we’re getting into,” Walker said. “It’s really exciting. I think he’s playing to my abilities. He wants me to be in attack mode all game.”
The Bobcats and Walker gave their fans a taste of what to expect from the second-year guard in Dunlap’s system this offseason in Las Vegas. Walker led the Bobcats to a 4-1 record and was named to the Las Vegas All-Summer-League Team after averaging 15.8 points, 5.8 assists and 3.6 rebounds while leading the summer league with 29 assists.
FAMILIAR FACES NOW TEAMMATES
Charlotte rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hails from New Jersey, while Walker called New York home, giving the two the tri-state connection that brought them together long before they were Bobcats. Their first matchup came when Walker was a senior at Rice High School and Kidd-Gilchrist was just a freshman at St. Patrick High School. Rice won, 60-57, but the Jersey boy still left a lasting impression on his future teammate.
“Even though he was a freshman, he was still pretty good,” Walker said in Las Vegas. “We’ve been hanging out a lot here in Summer Camp and I know we’ll be hanging out together a lot during the season. If I can be that big brother to him, I have no problem with that.”