CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This is the day Kemba Walker has been looking forward to since he signed with the Celtics. A return home in a more prosperous position, a Bobcat/Hornet who gave the city and franchise all he could for eight years before a rather unceremonious ending.
Those hard feelings should be forgotten by now. Walker is in a better situation in Boston, without the entire fate of a franchise on his not exactly broad shoulders. And the Hornets are off to a surprising 4-3 start with former Celtics point guard Terry Rozier, and former Walker backup Devonte’ Graham leading the team in scoring off the bench.
Walker has provided the Celtics a calming influence after a season of chaos. He is understated, humble, and respectable to his teammates. When Jaylen Brown pulled up for a questionable 18-foot jumper off the fast break that missed badly, the Celtics trailing by 2 with 8:13 left against the Raptors on Oct. 25, Walker — after fouling Toronto’s Norman Powell — walked up to Brown and patted him on the chest in encouragement.
It was a poor court decision by Brown, one in the midst of a rally against an Eastern Conference contender, but Walker offered praise instead.
“He told me I was good,” Brown said. “[Coach Brad] Stevens had an aneurysm. But Kemba was like, ‘You good, brah, just keep playing.’ It’s great for me just to know that he has your back. Easily somebody could have said something or got upset, or threw a tantrum or whatever. For him, Kemba, to be like, ‘You good, just play,’ it was the confidence I needed.”
That, of course, wasn’t a direct shot at Kyrie Irving, but more an example of the type of leadership Walker provides. On Tuesday, when he watched Gordon Hayward tie his career high with 39 points and hit all 16 of his 2-point attempts, Walker couldn’t have been any happier, or more relieved that he no longer has to turn into Super Kemba to win games down the stretch.
“I was just trying to call the right plays and keep the basketball in his hands,” Walker said. “When guys are feeling good like that, you’ve just got to keep feeding them. It’s going to be that way all season. It’s going to be different guys, different games to step up and make plays.”
In Charlotte, Walker was the team’s lone cornerstone. He led the Bobcats/Hornets in scoring in six of his eight seasons, and of the players who finished second during that tenure, only Dwight Howard has played in an All-Star Game.
The rest — Jeremy Lamb, Nicolas Batum (twice), Mo Williams, and Gerald Henderson — are solid but not spectacular players. In Boston, Walker joins Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart.
Walker has led the team in scoring in three of its six games, but it was Hayward who closed down the stretch against the Cavaliers, and Tatum who sank the winning basket last Friday against the New York Knicks.
“I love it. I love it,” Walker said. “I still gotta be aggressive and pick my spots, but really like Gordon, he had , it’s great to see. JT is chiming in and Smart is chiming in and [Daniel] Theis. Guys are just doing their part, just playing great basketball, very unselfish. It’s a pleasure to be out there with those guys.”
Walker indicated he knew it was time to move on when the Hornets offered well short of the five-year, $221 million contract he was eligible for since he made the All-NBA team. The Hornets are carrying such bloated, unmovable contracts for Walker’s former teammates — Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Marvin Williams, and Bismack Biyombo — they essentially couldn’t afford to re-sign him.
In trying to surround Walker with adequate talent, they drafted Frank Kaminsky and Noah Vonleh, and traded another first-round pick for Marco Belinelli. It was time for the sides to part.
The Hornets were able to get Rozier in a sign-and-trade with the Celtics, ensuring they could give him a premium salary. And so far, the organization’s plan of going young while allowing those unwanted contracts to come off the books has been effective.
Those organizational moves weren’t Walker’s fault. He deserved better from Charlotte, and he deserves a hearty reception when he steps on the floor Thursday at Spectrum Center.
“I’m about to see my mom, that’s all I’m thinking about. I haven’t seen her in a while,” Walker said. “My sister, my niece, my family. That’s really all I’m thinking about. I’m really excited to see them.”