“He’s s a winner,” 13-year veteran Corey Maggette says of his rookie teammate Kemba Walker. On the surface it’s an odd thing to say, considering their Bobcats were a league-worst 7-43 at the time. They are now 7-46.
“It’s very tough for him this season,” Maggette says. “Coming off the season that he had last year at the collegiate level, it gives him a different perspective. But he stays positive, man.”
How do you stay positive when you’re losing night after night for the first time in your life at 21 years old, a year removed from leading your team to an NCAA Championship? Part of it is having more experienced players on your side. “All these guys are kind of like big brothers to me,” Walker says. “D.J. [Augustin] has been great helping me throughout the season. Gerald Henderson, he’s been really good to me, having talks with me when I was down. When I was going through a bad phase, he called me up and just gave me some confidence.”
Part of it is having a coach who believes in you. “I don’t get up and call every play for him,” says Paul Silas, who Walker describes as “a real down to earth guy.”
Part of it, in this case, stands 6’9 and often sports a smile doing its best to rival his 7’6 wingspan. Just over two hours before tipoff at the Air Canada Centre, Bismack Biyombo bounds onto the court, laughing, grinning as he approaches Walker, Byron Mullens, Cory Higgins and Director of Player Development Chris Whitney. He sets a screen for Walker on a phantom defender. He misses a catch-and-shoot attempt on the baseline. He raises one of his massive arms to contest a Walker jump shot from midrange. On the point guard’s next attempt, he gets close enough to contest and then just stares at him.
“This thing is fun,” Biyombo says.
“He brings a great, positive energy. He’s a really positive guy,” Walker says of Biyombo. “He just uplifts everyone, so you need guys like that around the team.”
“He’s a great personality,” Silas adds. “He just wants to win, he wants everybody to play hard and he’ll let you know if you’re not, which is great.”
Flash back to a year ago. Walker is on top of the world, while Biyombo is propelling himself to prominence in Portland. After two seasons playing professionally in Spain, he introduces himself to the world at the Hoop Summit, registering a 12-point, 11-rebound, 10-block triple-double against the USA Junior National Select Team led by Anthony Davis. Months later, he’s shaking David Stern’s hand when Charlotte selects him seventh in the NBA Draft. He’s picked for his preposterous potential rather than present productivity.
In the present, Biyombo is 19, the youngest player in the NBA. He’s been a full-time starter for two months, allowed to play through his mistakes, of which there are many on the offensive end. “Skill-wise, he has some work to do with his shot, his free throws and that type of thing, but he has something that you can’t teach as far as his tenacity, stick-with-it-ness, and just the way he plays the game,” says Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who watched Biyombo block seven shots when his team lost to Charlotte in February.
“I love the way he plays the game,” Casey says. “He just keeps coming, keeps coming. So the future’s going to be bright for him. There’s always a place in the league for a guy like that.”
Biyombo names Maggette his biggest mentor in the locker room. “I just try to talk to him and be as positive as possible,” Maggette says before crediting Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw and Chris Gatling for giving him insight when he was a rookie in Orlando in 1999-2000. “I’m just trying to share the wealth.
“This is a tough season and he can look back on this and [say], ‘Hey man, I remember that time my first year that we won seven games,'” Maggette continues. “He comes in with the attitude like you wouldn’t think that we were 7-45 or whatever.
“He kind of reminds me of me back when I was younger. Just happy.”
Walker is more rapt than happy pregame, preparing to make his first start since mid-February. Is he excited? “Of course,” he says. “I’m just trying to take advantage.”
Silas would not be starting Walker if the team was fighting for a playoff berth. “I just wanted to check Kemba out and see what he can do,” he says. “It’s not written in stone that he’s going to start forever but I’m going to start him tonight and see how he does.”
As well as adjusting to playing against pros, lopsided losses and the most strenuous of schedules, Walker is reconciling with his role. In his final year at UConn, he averaged 18 shots in 37.6 minutes per game and was known for game-winning shots. With the Bobcats, he’s been asked to dial back his game. “He’s improved quite a bit,” Silas says. “He’s not just looking to take it on his own all the time. He’s calling plays for everybody. He’s understanding if someone scores on a play then he’ll come back down and call that same play, so he’s learning. It’s not going to happen right away, but he’s learning.”
Walker picks his spots in Toronto and finishes with 10 points and seven assists, looking for his teammates before calling his own number. But he plays only 23:26, one minute fewer than Augustin. He never gets a chance at anything resembling a game-winner, sitting for the entire fourth quarter as his team loses its eighth straight, 92-87.
This is par for the course in Walker’s uneven season, where even after recording a triple-double he’s had 12-minute nights, 41-minute nights and everything in between. A day later in Atlanta, he returns to his backup role but winds up playing 33 minutes and scoring 21 points.
“It’s a learning process for both of us,” Biyombo says. And there’s no better teacher than experience. Even if the tests are painful, like guarding Dwight Howard one-on-one. “It’s fun to play against him,” Biyombo says, which sounds absolutely insane until you realize that he recorded two of the first three double-doubles of his NBA career against Howard and the Magic.
“You cannot expect them to just go out and do the job right away, so it takes patience,” says Silas, admitting that patience is difficult when looking at losses piling up. “You really have to stick with it and realize that most players in this league, it takes at least two to three years before they really understand how to play. So the guy might have a lot of athletic ability, but it’s like a baby. A baby and a two year-old, it’s quite a difference.”
Biyombo says that he’s “a totally different player” than he was at the beginning of the season and both Walker and Maggette compliment his work ethic. “He’s like a sponge, man” says the veteran. “Each game, he gets better and better.” Already with a game-winning block he describes as “a fun time” on his resume, Biyombo is often compared to Ben Wallace. Maggette thinks he can be better than his former Magic teammate because he will develop his offensive game. He has a long way to go, but the franchise is committed to him and sometimes a blank slate isn’t a bad thing.
The praise for Biyombo sounds a lot like things said about Walker his whole life. His freshman season at Rice High in Harlem, he backed up Edgar Sosa. When he arrived at UConn, he backed up A.J. Price. He’s willing work his way up in Charlotte, learning from Augustin. “Sometimes I tend to get a little out of control,” Walker says. “He’ll come to me and let me know, ‘Just calm down.'”
If Walker’s goals next season include taking over the starting job, he’s not saying it. “I just want to be the best player I can be. Be the best leader I can be. And just win basketball games.”
After this trying year, Silas will want nothing more than to win basketball games. Whether or not Augustin is still the starter, the Bobcats coach will be happy to help hone Walker’s game. “He listens, he works hard,” Silas says. “You can approach him on anything and he’s willing to listen to you, so I have no problem with him at all.
“If I did, I’d kick his ass.”