Commentary

UK-UConn: The "other" point guard

At home in New York City, UConn's Walker ready to take on Kentucky's Wall

Originally Published: December 9, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- He tried to downplay it, to dig deep into the ready-made bag of sports clichés to insist this was just another game on the schedule. That every game was important and it wasn't about him versus another guy, but team versus team.

But when pressed about Wednesday night's matchup against Kentucky guard John Wall, arguably the best and most electric player in college basketball this season, Kemba Walker couldn't help himself.

[+] EnlargeKemba Walker
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesFor someone who loves the big lights, Walker vs. Wall at Madison Square Garden certainly qualifies.

The eyes of the Connecticut sophomore danced, and slowly that trademark megawatt grin spread across his face.

"I love it," he said, his smile growing with every syllable. "I love it. I love it."

Told of her son's reaction, Andrea Walker didn't hesitate.

"He loves attention," she said. "Always has. When he was little, he'd hit you on the arm and start dancing just so you'd look at him. That boy just loves the spotlight."

It will be on full bore Wednesday during the nightcap of the SEC/Big East Invitational at Madison Square Garden, where Walker, a Bronx kid who has spent a lifetime waiting his turn, will face Wall, a North Carolina native anointed Superman and his program's savior upon arrival.

The Walker-Wall matchup may come and go during the game. UConn coach Jim Calhoun said both Walker and Jerome Dyson will take turns handling the hotshot rookie. But the coach also knows how his player will view the matchup: "Will Kemba take it [as him versus Wall]? Yeah, but that's just Kemba."

It's impossible not to watch Walker on the court. He is everywhere, darting around like some sort of basketball blur and playing with a ferocity that borders on dangerous.

But what really draws you to Walker is the smile. He is a grinning assassin, flashing his chompers much like Michael Jordan hung out his tongue.

"Early in the season during practice, I wasn't smiling so much, and [associate head coach George] Blaney told me, 'You aren't smiling like you were last year. You're too serious,'" Walker said. "He was right. I'm better when I'm smiling. That means I'm loose. I'm just playing."

The smile comes easily now, because Walker knows this is his time. His entire life has been something of an oxymoron: the spotlight-lover who always has to first serve as understudy.

In middle school, he waited behind Corey Fisher (now a junior at Villanova). In high school, he bided his time until Edgar Sosa (now at Louisville) graduated. In college, Walker didn't get his chance until A.J. Price moved on from Storrs.

So it's been a tough lesson in patience for a kid who was so antsy as a toddler that his mother put a bolt on the door.

"There was a snowstorm, maybe 18 inches, and he wanted to go outside with his brother and sister," Andrea Walker said. "But he had asthma and he was little. I told him he couldn't. So I went and did something, and then I looked out the window a little later. We lived on the front of the building. And there was Mr. Walker, out in the snow. That's when I got the lock."

Walker was not so easily contained, not on the stage where he was part of a hip-hop troupe that danced at the Apollo Theater, and certainly not on the court.

A child who "loved the street," as his mother said, Walker was outside whenever he could be. When he wasn't dancing, he was playing hoops. He can't remember the first time he picked up a basketball, as if it was an appendage he brought with him out of the womb.

[+] EnlargeKemba Walker
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesWalker was a McDonald's All-American while at New York hoops powerhouse Rice High School.

Really, that isn't much of a stretch in New York, where available hoops are second only to Starbucks and Duane Reade pharmacies in availability per block.

Walker is a quintessential New York point guard, a species of hoopsters that cannot easily be described but can always be identified. It is about more than being tough and fearless, though Walker is both. It's about how the game is learned.

Walker grew up, literally and figuratively, on the famed Rucker Park courts, where kids go toe-to-toe with grown men who offer no mercy and college students return each year to receive their comeuppance from upstarts looking to make a mark.

Known as EZ Pass for his playmaking abilities, Walker never failed to turn heads once he got his turn. At Rice High School, he averaged 18.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.3 assists once he took over for Sosa, earning himself a spot as a McDonald's All-American.

But that meant nothing when he got to UConn, where Price already was firmly in place. Rather than chafe at his backup role yet again, Walker merely shrugged.

"I've had to wait my whole life, so it wasn't a big deal," he said.

Walker bided his time as a steady backup, and when Calhoun finally called on him for a bigger role, naturally the crowd-stealer was ready.

Against a frenetic Missouri team in last season's Elite Eight, Walker scored 23 points in 25 minutes, changing the tenor of the game for the Huskies.

It is the next game, though, that sticks with him more. In the national semifinal against Michigan State, Walker managed just five points on 1-of-5 shooting as Connecticut was bounced out of Detroit.

When the game and the Huskies' season ended, so too did Walker's role as a backup. Readying for his starring and starting role, he spent the offseason with Blaney, working on his outside shot.

Walker was a woeful 27.1 percent on 3-pointers as a freshman. He admitted that as a child of New York playground basketball (where bread is buttered at the rim) and against high school foes who rarely measured more than 6-foot-5 at the center position, Walker never paid much mind to shooting from the outside.

But if this season's Connecticut team has one glaring deficiency, it is from behind the arc. The Huskies have no one who can spot up for a 3.

So with Blaney's tutelage and his own dedication, Walker developed his shot. He's taken only 18 3s through seven games, but he's made 10 of them.

[+] EnlargeKemba Walker
David Butler II/US PresswireWalker and Stanley Robinson will be need to be key factors if UConn is to knock off No. 4 Kentucky.

"I think it's here," Walker said when asked if his outside shot was coming along.

Of course, it is not his offense that will get top billing on Wednesday. There's no question Walker needs to score. Until Ater Majok is brought into the fold later this month, the Huskies need double figures out of Walker (15.4 ppg), Dyson (20.1 ppg) and Stanley Robinson (15.4 ppg) every night to win.

But it will be how he and Dyson handle the Cat-quick backcourt of Wall and Eric Bledsoe that matters most for Connecticut.

Walker, who averages 2.6 steals, has never crossed paths with Wall, not even on the country crisscross of summer-league basketball.

But that doesn't mean he doesn't know what he's up against. You'd have to be living in a hermetically sealed dome without electricity and communication with the outside world to not know about Wall. The nation's leading freshman scorer, who already has giddy Kentucky fans pondering if he's the best guard to put on a UK uniform and NBA scouts counting the days until June, is that rare commodity in the ultra-hyped cycle: He's better than advertised.

Wall is averaging 18 points, four rebounds and seven assists and already has etched his name into Kentucky lore. He hit a buzzer-beater to beat Miami (Ohio) and made like Willis Reed against North Carolina, overcoming cramps and an IV to help the Wildcats beat the Tar Heels.

"As a player, you love these kinds of games," Walker said. "Everyone's talking about the other guy, and no one is talking about you. I don't mind it at all. I'm used to it. It's been that way as long as I can remember, but I love it."

And then Walker grinned again.

A giddy, greedy grin.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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