Kemba Walker: UConn's best guard ever

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Kemba Walker: UConn's best guard ever

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com Staff Reporter Follow @mary_paoletti
Is Kemba Walker is the greatest guard to play basketball at the University of Connecticut?

The idea bubbled up from the lips of excitable analysts and even giddier fans after UConn won its third national championship on April 4.

What about now? Can The Greatest -- an oblique and overused sports tag -- be qualified on solid ground, down from the high of the title run? Current pros and three-year Connecticut products Richard Hamilton, Ben Gordon, and Ray Allen could complicate the question.

Walker joined those players in the NBA ranks when he was selected by the Charlotte Bobcats with the No. 9 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, but ignore the NBA achievements and consider only their college careers.

Walkers final season at Connecticut leads the pack in almost every category: total field goals (316), free throws (258), steals per game (1.8), points per game (23.5). And he got the least rest of the four players (37.6 minutes).

Ray Allen averaged more rebounds during his last year (6.5). He should have, at 65; Walker is barely 61.

While Gordon had a higher assist percentage (4.5), his total didnt lead the team in 2004 Taliek Browns did. Kembas 184 assists in 2010-11 were best of the bunch by 60.

Donny Marshall is unbothered by the 21-year olds lofty perch on the Husky totem pole.

And he knows well how the thing is built. Marshall is a member of the UConn All-Century Team -- one of only nine forwards named -- and has worked with the program since graduating in 2005.

Theres no question Kembas the best guard to come out of Connecticut. I would even consider him as the best player to come out of there. Ever, Marshall says. Im thinking of where he came from. When Kemba came in he couldnt really shoot, he didnt really understand defenses, didnt understand how to make guys better. He learned.

Rip Hamilton remembers the feeling.

I think we all come in thinking that were good, but in actuality were really not ready. We really dont understand the college game and how to play, Hamilton explains. Head coach Jim Calhoun stays on us. Coach has always been the type of guy that always pushes you in practice, but lets everybody know that youre the best player in the country.

He always does a great job of that regardless of how good you are, regardless of how much you accomplish, regardless of if youre an All-American.

Walker was.

He was a Consensus Unanimous First Team All-American. He was voted First Team All-American by USBWA, Sporting News, AP, Wooden, and the NABC. He actually has a wheelbarrows worth of awards that have been piling up since Novembers Maui Invitational MVP honor.

They added up to a National Championship.

Richard Hamilton and Ben Gordon have titles, too (won in 1999 and 2004, respectively). But neither had to win eleven straight games while toting along seven freshman five of whom got major minutes as Walker did.

Ask Gordon today about his 04 tourney run and his appreciation for teammate Emeka Okafors MVP performance still sounds fresh.

And it makes the glow around Walker shine brighter.

Thats probably the most impressive thing, is the cast of guys hes doing it with, Gordon says. Aside from Jeremy Lamb, a lot of the guys hes doing it with are very good players, but more like role players who just fit in to do exactly what theyre supposed to. On our team we had so many pros that, from anybody on any given night, could have had a monster night.

Gordons point about singularity makes the universitys retirement of Walkers number seem less aggressive.

UConn immortalized the golden guard in the Husky Hall of Fame on April 5. Some college basketball analysts and writers balked at the idea of honoring Walkers memory while he was practically still sweating from the title game.

Player nominees have a five-year consideration period. Walker didnt wait 24-hours.

Kemba just had the greatest year in the history of UConn basketball, the coach told the Hartford Courant. He deserved this.

Theres no debating Walkers position on the Husky heap. Yet, even way up there its still possible to sell him short. Donny Marshall is most impressed, not with when, but how Walker willed his number 15 up on that Gampel Pavilion wall.

Its one thing to say hes a great player because he scores and look what hes done, Marshall says. But its another to say that he listens; he paid attention, soaked it all up. A lot of kids who are in his position think they know it already. The fact that he could listen, open himself up and say, Look how much better I could be if I take it all in.

Third Team All BIG EAST to Naismith Trophy finalist is one hell of a leap.

Walkers springboard was a timeless clich: Be the first one in the gym. Always.

As an underclassman he was first in, last out, always asking for extra shots. When NBA vets like Rudy Gay and Hilton Armstrong visited their alma mater, Walker didnt want to play with, but against them.

Rather than show off what he could do, he used Gay, Armstrong, Kevin Ollie and Marshall as resources to learn and improve on what he could not do.

It was young humility, it was rare, and it struck Marshall significantly.

The alum recalls watching freshman Roscoe Smith make a defensive reach during an early season practice. Smith got beat on the play and his man pushed the ball up the floor. To Marshalls disappointment, Smith jogged back on defense.

The lesson was for Walker.

I said, You know what, K? When I was here with Kevin Ollie and Ray Allen we would grab somebodys shirt and say, Get your ass back on defense. Run the floor, Marshall says. Thats what youve got to do. Its not a popularity contest. Theyre going to be mad at you, but in the end its going to pay off.

At the same time Kemba knew to tell guys, you miss a couple shots and its alright; Im gonna get you an easier shot, a better one. He would never give up on them. Marcus Williams (2003-06) was a very, very talented point guard, but if you missed a few shots he would go away from you no matter who it was. Kemba he just understands that you need those guys to win.

Walkers learned leadership won Connecticut its championship.

The 2010 roster had more talent and more experience. Senior Jeff Adrian anchored the team down low. Junior point guard Jerome Dyson played hard, he was tough. Sophomore swingman Stanley Robinson was a freakishly athletic NBA prospect. They are the reason UConn earned an AP preseason ranking in the Top-12.

Dyson and Robinson are also a large part of why those Huskies recorded the programs worst win percentage (.529) since 1986. Marshall calls the pair two of the greatest, but most selfish, athletes to go through the program.

Without them, Walker found his voice, and UConn became a team again.

I think very few of us are able to transmit how we feel to others, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said in Houston. I think Kemba does it two ways. Obviously, his physical abilities on the court, but I think his incredible passion for us to be successful off the court, I think to transmit that to the other group of guys is an unusual gift that Kemba has.

What a match for Jim Calhoun. Not just any athlete can succeed under UConns bench boss, says Gordon.

Calhoun is relentless, he says. If you go to the school two things are going to happen: hes either going to make you or break you. Either youre not going to be able to play for him or youre going to figure it out and become a better player.

Former Husky Charlie Villanueva agrees. When prompted about the classic Calhoun crook, the coachs fiery penchant to yank players off the court immediately after a mistake, Villanueva laughs and shakes his head. He acknowledges the harshness of Calhouns trademark expression of disappointment. He also claims himself the wiser for it.

You gotta come ready to play, Villanueva says. Every minute you get on that court, you earn it. Nothing is given to you.

Is that Walker or what?

Work ethic and heart those ooey-gooey intangibles that analysts love to gush about really are what took this kid to the next level. Its what drove him to become a student of the game, to take 500-1,000 jump shots every day last summer, and to listen and learn from those who played before him.

The whole thing sounds so Hoosiers sometimes. Thing is, the longer you talk with those who worked with Walker, the easier it is to imagine him there ripping off jumpers in the yard long after Jimmy Chitwood had gone to bed.

I think when youre on that level mentally theres nothing that can stop you. I think thats what made Kemba successful, Gordon says. Hes always had the heart, hes got a great work ethic, and with that comes a lot of confidence. Hes carried that all the way to the championship.

Walker could have been content to be good at Connecticut, but he willed himself to be great.

The greatest.

Mary Paoletti can be reached at mpaoletti@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

Are Cavs vulnerable enough for C's to be taken seriously as No. 1 seed?

Are Cavs vulnerable enough for C's to be taken seriously as No. 1 seed?

Let’s say things had gotten crazy towards the end of the NFL season. Maybe the Pats lose their game to the Ravens in Week 14, Derek Carr never gets hurt and the Raiders end up grabbing the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Would anybody really consider the Raiders the team to beat?

That’s kind of what’s going on in the NBA right now. The Celtics are first in the Eastern Conference, a spot they could very conceivably hold at season’s end, yet there isn’t even a drop of “this is the year” talk from even if their most loyal fans. That’s all because of LeBron James (in the East, at least) and that’s probably warranted.

Yet there’s a reason the Cavaliers aren’t running away with the East this season and it’s greater than the fact that James-led teams typically don’t go for broke in the regular season; though LeBron has reached the NBA Finals in six straight seasons, only two of them saw him do so as a top seed.

That reason is, in large part, injuries. Kevin Love has underwhelmed since his return from knee surgery (13.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in a little over 26 minutes a night compared to 20.0 points and 11.1 rebounds in nearly 32 minutes a night before the surgery), while Kyle Korver has been in and out with a left foot issue. The team considers J.R. Smith to be in “training camp” in his games back from a fractured thumb.

This is also by far the worst defensive Cavaliers team since James’ return in 2014-15. Cleveland allows 106.8 per game, which ranks 21st in the league. In each of the past two seasons, they allowed an average of 97.9 points.

All that said, the NBA often boils down to star talent, and James and Kyrie Irving is probably better on paper, with whatever flotsam and jetsam you give them, than anything else you can jot down in the East. It was a similar story when the Heat finished with the No. 2 seed in three of James’ four seasons there. They steamrolled the No. 1 seed Bulls in five games in 2010-11 and beat the top-seeded Pacers in six in 2013-14.

Yet the supporting cast is diminished and so too has been the team’s performance. With a less-than-healthy Love, the Cavaliers aren’t nearly as intimidating. All this while the Celtics have won seven of eight. That’s not to say the Celtics don’t have their share of fool’s gold.  Of the aforementioned seven wins, only three came vs. teams in line for a playoff spot and the loss came to a terrible 76ers team, albeit without Isaiah Thomas.

Yet would it really be so out of the question that a healthy Celtics team, with Thomas in a career year, Marcus Smart continuing to emerge and Al Horford beefing up a roster that was one-and-done in years past, could give a vulnerable Cavaliers team a run for its money, especially with a home-court advantage?

Maybe not, and maybe it will be a moot point by the time late April rolls around, but for now, can’t we read into the Celtics as contenders just a little bit?

Celtics move into No. 1 spot in East as Cavs get crushed by Spurs

Celtics move into No. 1 spot in East as Cavs get crushed by Spurs

SAN ANTONIO -- The Cavaliers acknowledged having heavy legs, yet there is something far weightier on the minds of the defending NBA champions.

Cleveland is in the midst of one of its worst stretches this season and there is little time to fix it.

Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the ailing Cavs 103-74 on Monday night in a much-anticipated showdown that turned into a major letdown for Cleveland.

"The way we've been struggling, (the Spurs are) the last team that you want to play," said LeBron James, who was fine after taking an elbow to the neck. "A well-oiled machine like this, they exploit everything that you're not doing well at that point in time of the season and right now we're not playing good basketball."

James, who finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes, said he will play Thursday at Chicago.

Cleveland (47-26) dropped its second in a row, set a season low for points and fell a half-game behind Boston (48-26) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Cavaliers have nine games remaining, all against teams in the East, including a visit to Boston on April 5.

James said the standings "always matter," but playing more consistently is far more important and he refused to blame injuries or an arduous schedule for the team's troubles.

"It matters more that we're playing better basketball than where we're at," he said. "If that results in us having the No. 1 seed, the No. 2 seed, 3 or whatever the hell it is, we need to play better basketball. That's what it comes down to."

What Cleveland is seeking, the Spurs have already found.

San Antonio (57-16) is two games behind Golden State (59-14) for the league's best record entering a home game against the Warriors on Wednesday.

The Spurs have won five straight and 8 of 10 after sweeping the season series with the Cavaliers.

"It was a big game, but in the end, it's just one game, and one win," San Antonio guard Tony Parker said. "We're trying to be consistent. We're trying to play the same way every game. It was definitely surprising. Coming off a loss, I thought they would play with a lot more energy, but it can happen. It's a long season. It's just one game and I'm sure they're going to bounce back and use this game as motivation."

LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol added 14 points apiece for the Spurs.

San Antonio led by as many as 33 to the delight of the sold-out crowd, and the Spurs' bench outscored the Cavaliers' reserves 49-24.

"We did a good job coming out early and then keeping our foot on the pedal," Leonard said.

Cleveland, which was already without injured Iman Shumpert, received more bad news Monday morning when it was announced that Kyle Korver will miss at least two more games with a sore left foot.

"You lose Korver and Shumpert off your bench and things tend to change," Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. "With those two guys out, we tried some different things and it didn't work. It was not on the bench. It was on me."

Cleveland opted to play its stars rather than rest them, but the trio of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sat out the fourth quarter of the Cav's second lopsided loss in the past two weeks.

Lue said he has considered resting his stars over the team's final nine games, which James is not in favor of.

"Coach is going to have his logic of things, but we need to play," he said.

James exited with 25 seconds remaining in the third after taking an elbow to his neck from David Lee on a rebound. James continually rubbed the area before collapsing after he crossed midcourt. He remained on the floor for about a minute before walking unassisted to the bench.

James left for the locker room early in the fourth quarter during a timeout, but said afterward he is fine.

EXTRA SHOOTING

Irving returned to the court for about 15 minutes following the loss to work on his jump shot. The star guard had eight points and two assists in 26 minutes. He finished 4 for 13 from the field and missed his two 3-point attempts.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Cleveland completed its schedule against the West, finishing 16-14. In addition to losing to the Spurs by 29 points, the Cavaliers lost by 35 to Golden State and 30 to the Los Angeles Clippers . . . James needs 24 points to pass Shaquille O'Neal for seventh overall in career scoring. O'Neal has 28,596 career points . . . The Cavaliers averaged 116.3 points in their previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio is holding opponents under 100 points per game for the 22nd straight season . . . Danny Green tied his season high with four blocked shots . . . Leonard has scored in double figures in 100 straight games.

UP NEXT

Cavaliers: At the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night.

Spurs: Host the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night.