Former champ Walker looks ahead after dismal season with Bobcats
Kemba Walker's rookie year was overshadowed by a poor Charlotte Bobcats team
After leading UConn to NCAA title, Walker suffered through losing NBA season
With the historically bad season finished, Walker's focus is on his improvement
Riding the bus back from the Bobcats' shootaround in Orlando Tuesday, Kemba Walker sounded markedly glum. He was reflecting on his rookie season in Charlotte -- one in which he averaged 12.1 points, 4.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds -- and spoke tersely about what he'll remember most from his first-year experience.
"Just all these losses," he said flatly. "We had a terrible season."
A little more than a year ago, Walker was at the zenith of college basketball. He basked in the afterglow of an improbable national championship, and was coming off a sequence of indelible moments: his step-back jumper to upset Pittsburgh, his wraparound pass to edge Louisville, his numerous heroics against Arizona, Kentucky and Butler.
Within a span of weeks, he elevated from an All-Big East performer into an iconic UConn great. He was a hero. He was a winner.
Now, that seems like a fuzzy and faraway memory. Since arriving in Charlotte, all Walker has done is lose. And lose. Following the Bobcats' 104-84 loss to the Knicks on Thursday night, their record dropped to 7-59 -- the worst mark in NBA history. Over the final stretch of the season, they didn't come particularly close to winning: They were routed by the lowly Kings, Wizards and Hornets by a combined 62 points.
Walker performed admirably enough -- he had 16 points and five assists in a loss to Chicago; 13 points and 11 assists in a recent loss to Sacramento -- but his team was an abject failure. He was flustered and flabbergasted, desperately trying to maintain focus as the Bobcats spiraled into oblivion.
Reminiscing on the team bus, those feelings all surfaced: frustration, anger, dismay. But so did something else. Perhaps inexplicably, Walker expressed a palpable sense of relief.
"It's hard losing so many games, especially coming off that run that I had," he said. "But at the same time, I know that those days are pretty much over."
In a way, that's strangely insightful. Despite clinching a spot in infamy (their .106 winning percentage is the lowest of all time), the Bobcats' season is finished. Their run of misery, prolonged and historically awful, finally comes to an end.
Once the playoffs tip off, Charlotte's plight will be forgotten. Public attention will shift to NBA title contenders, and rightfully so. But that's also when Walker will attempt to regroup. After enduring a month and a half of winless basketball, Walker and the Bobcats will begin to move on.
"It's hard for all of us, because the losing takes its toll," said Charlotte coach Paul Silas. "But [Walker is] handling it very well. He's very focused. I think he has star potential."
That may sound overly optimistic, but then again, why dwell? The Bobcats just suffered separate 16- and 23-game losing streaks. They could use an infusion of hope. Walker even has experience pioneering drastic turnarounds: UConn went 18-16 and lost in the second round of the NIT just one year before capturing a championship.
Amid the agony, there were also some faint signs of encouragement for Walker. He showed rare rebounding ability among young point guards, leading the Bobcats four times despite his undersized 6-foot-1 frame. He gradually embraced a pass-first mentality, upping his assists average from 3.5 to 4.8 since the start of February. He even recorded some statistical gems, such as his first career triple-double on Jan. 28 against Washington -- 20 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists.
His accomplishments weren't anywhere near on par with his triumphant feats at UConn, or even his coming-of-age milestones in the Bronx. But they were noteworthy. They were signs that, eventually, a promising NBA career could emerge.
"He'll go in, penetrate to the hoop, get hit, fall down, get right back up and shoot the free throws," said Silas. "He's got a ways to go to be the leader of this club, but he's very committed. That will come as he matures."
Walker will continue to develop during the offseason, honing both his three-point shooting (he shot just 30.5 percent as a rookie) and his decision-making. He'll work with coaches to improve his feel for the game -- he's still learning to play as a true point guard -- and, without a lockout, should have plenty of opportunities. He'll remember this year's failure, but he won't be consumed by it. After languishing in the NBA cellar, he'll strive to respond.
"Now I know what it takes to win a basketball game at this level," he said. "It definitely gives me a lot of motivation to work hard over the summer.
The 2011-12 Bobcats were historically terrible. Fans know that; Walker knows that. But the losing is finally over. The next step in his career will soon begin, and there's only one direction he can go: up.
"He's a winner," said Silas. "He learned how to be a winner when he was in college. It just takes time. Very few rookies are gonna come in this league and become a leader instantly."
Said Walker: "Everybody has to overcome adversity at some time, so I guess it's my time to go through it. I'm just doing my best to learn from it as well as possible. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I'm just trying to get stronger and build from this."