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.
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.