OFFSEASON

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

OFFSEASON

Durant leads U.S. to second exhibition rout, 106-57 over China

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Durant leads U.S. to second exhibition rout, 106-57 over China

LOS ANGELES - Just two games into the U.S. basketball team's pre-Olympic tour, coach Mike Krzyzewski already sees the start of something big.

Kevin Durant scored 19 points, Klay Thompson added 17 and the Americans rolled to a second straight blowout exhibition victory, 106-57 over China on Sunday night.

DeMar DeRozan scored 13 points in his hometown, and DeMarcus Cousins had 12 points and seven rebounds in the second stop on the five-city tour leading the Americans to Rio de Janeiro. The victory over an overmatched opponent was impressive, but Krzyzewski liked it more for the composed, cohesive manner in which the new teammates worked together.

"We should have won, but the way we won was excellent," Krzyzewski said. "We're really growing together as a group."

After opening their showcase tour by trouncing Argentina in Las Vegas on Friday night, the U.S. team posted another rout at a packed Staples Center. Krzyzewski is finding it difficult to disguise his early optimism, praising his team's work in their brief practice time together.

And while they're still learning their teammates' tendencies and solidifying player rotations, the U.S. team looked remarkably connected for long stretches against China, which has no current NBA players.

Durant noticed it, as did Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who kicked off the festivities by blocking a shot on China's first possession and throwing down an alley-oop dunk on the Americans' first possession.

"We've only been together a week, but it seems like we've been teammates for years," Jordan said.

Jordan scored 12 points and led a strong defensive effort with three blocks for the Americans, who held the Chinese to 30.9 percent shooting. Krzyzewski believes the American team will excel at defensive switching because of its abundance of versatile players.

"I think we're learning more about one another, and our defense was there pretty much the whole game," Krzyzewski said.

The Americans haven't lost a game since the 2006 world championships, winning 65 straight games. They're 47-1 in exhibitions since NBA stars took over the roster in 1992, going undefeated since 2004.

While LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard all declined the chance to play in Rio, the Americans who accepted the opportunity appear to be serious about winning without some of the nation's top stars.

"We're young, but we've got a bunch of seasoned pros," said Kyrie Irving, who had 10 points and four assists. "We've been on a lot of journeys, and we've crossed paths before, but now we're all coming together at the right time."

Anthony was the only holdover in the Americans' starting lineup from Las Vegas while Krzyzewski works on chemistry and coordination. He put Paul George in with the starters alongside Anthony, Jordan, Kyle Lowry and DeRozan, whose family watched from courtside.

Both teams had early shooting struggles, but the Americans took charge with impressive speed late in the first quarter.

Durant, one of the two returning American gold medalists from London, heard boos from the LA crowd during pregame introductions. He quickly found his outside stroke with 14 points and four assists in the first half, and Cousins overpowered the Chinese down low for 12 first-half points on the way to a 55-29 halftime lead.

The Chinese team's most recognizable name to North Americans is Yi Jianlian, the Milwaukee Bucks' choice with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 draft. He spent five seasons with four NBA teams before heading back to the Guangdong Southern Tigers.

Yi led the Chinese with 18 points. Zhou Qi, the 7-foot-2 center drafted by the Houston Rockets in the second round last month, scored two points on 1-for-6 shooting. Exciting guard Zhao Jiwei scored 14 points.

The teams meet again Tuesday in Oakland, where Durant will play in front of his new home fans for the first time since defecting from Oklahoma City to the Golden State Warriors earlier this month.

They'll also meet Aug. 6 in the opening game of Olympic competition in Brazil.

OFFSEASON

After flurry of moves, Celtics still aren't done

After flurry of moves, Celtics still aren't done

You’re probably thinking the summer fireworks are finished after the Celtics brought back Tyler Zeller, added ex-Celtic Gerald Green, and signed rookies Demetrius Jackson and Ben Bentil. It’s true, these moves do lower the likelihood of a multifaceted trade, but it doesn’t totally extinguish the odds of something seismic happening.

The Celtics still retain their flexibility, since none of these deals have actually been finalized. Even after they are, they’d still have the pieces required to make a deal work for a superstar like Blake Griffin. It’s not hard to make a valid trade for one player, but it is difficult if it’s a multi-step process like a Russell Westbrook renegotiate-and-extend trade.

“This is not necessarily what the team will be,” a source told the Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach. “There’s probably changes coming.”

Well, yeah. Changes have to come. The Celtics don’t really have a choice here.

Assuming Jaylen Brown is signed, they’ll have 18 players with at least partially guaranteed contracts. So at least three players will have to be exported before the season, since the NBA requires a maximum of 15 players on a roster.

Here’s a look at the Celtics’ current projected depth chart:

  STARTERS BENCH RESERVES ON THE BUBBLE
FRONT COURT Amir Johnson Kelly Olynyk Tyler Zeller  
Al Horford Jonas Jerebko Jordan Mickey Ben Bentil*
Jae Crowder Jaylen Brown* Gerald Green James Young
BACK COURT Avery Bradley Marcus Smart RJ Hunter John Holland*
Isaiah Thomas Terry Rozier Demetrius Jackson  

So, something has to happen. It’s just a matter of what. You can choose to believe the Celtics aren’t actually trying to make a blockbuster move. Or you can choose to believe the signals that have been firing off this month from the Celtics themselves indicating they’re “not done.”

It wouldn’t be difficult for the Celtics to get closer to 15 players by completing a blockbuster trade for a player like Griffin.
 
Perhaps some combination of veterans (Amir Johnson, Avery Bradley, and Jonas Jerebko) with youth (Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter, and James Young) and draft picks (2018 Nets pick) could bring in Griffin and Paul Pierce.

Saturday’s moves make sense regardless of any transactions to follow.

Zeller is a bargain at just $8 million as a steadying presence on both ends of the floor. But, if Johnson were dealt, he’d be able to slide right up the depth chart as the team’s backup center.

Green shot 37.2 percent on spot up threes, per SportVU, over the past three years, so he provides spacing as a scorer who can catch fire. Considering Brad Stevens’ track record of sapping every ounce of talent out of each of his players -- hello, Jordan Crawford! -- it’s possible the Celtics will be getting the Green who scored an efficient 15.8 points per game just two years ago in Phoenix, and not the subpar Green who struggled to stay on the court last year in Miami.

If one or two of Boston’s young wings were dealt, Green, on a mere veteran minimum contract, would have an even easier path to playing time as a spark off the bench.

It’s difficult to read into the signings of second-round picks Jackson and Bentil, but either way the should both spend the season developing with the Celtics’ D-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.

The Celtics haven’t made a move yet, but they also haven’t done anything to suggest they’re entirely done. These moves could be precursors to something significant, or not. But at the least they provide depth to an already impressive roster.

OFFSEASON

Report: Celtics agree to deals with Zeller and picks Jackson, Bentil

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Report: Celtics agree to deals with Zeller and picks Jackson, Bentil

On a busy Saturday for the Celtics, they have brought back center Tyler Zeller and agreed to deals with draft picks Demetrius Jackson and Ben Bentil, Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe reported.

Earlier Saturday, Sean Deveney of the Sporting News reported that the Celtics will sign guard Gerald Green. 

Himmelsbach reports that Zeller's is a $16 million, two-year deal with the second-year not guaranteed. Jackson, the point guard from Notre Dame who was the 45th overall selection in the draft, has a guaranteed deal and Bentil, the forward from Providence who was the 51st player drafted, has a partially guaranteed deal. 

Steve Bulpett of The Boston Herald reported that the second-year of Zeller's deal is a team option and that Green agreed to a one-year deal at the $1.4 million veteran mininum based on his nine years of NBA service.

The 7-foot Zeller averaged 6.1 points and 3.0 rebounds in 11.8 minutes a game last season. 

R.J. Hunter, James Young, Bentil and John Holland are in position to fight for the final roster spot, Himmelsbach reports, pending more deals, which the Celtics are reportedly working on. A source told Himmelsbach, that while there are probably changes coming, "There is no big deal right now." 

Bulpett reported that Celtics' talks with the Philadelphia 76ers involving a deal for Sixers' big man Jahlil Okafor have, according to sources, grown "stale" and that the moves Saturday put 2014 draft pick James Young's roster spot in jeopardy.

With Green, Zeller, and No. 3 overall pick Jaylen Brown, the Celtics have has 15 guaranteed contracts and three partial or non-guaranteed deals.