Sunday, March 13, 2011

Kemba's come a long way, but still listens to his mother

When Kemba Walker gets into a zone, he is a very difficult man to stop. It took the wear and tear of 190 grueling minutes of basketball over the course of just five days to slow down the UConn sophomore.

Even that was only so effective. Instead of scoring the game winning basket on Saturday night, Kemba, who had 19 of his 130 Big East Tournament points against Louisville, drove through four Louisville defenders and set up Jeremy Lamb with a wide open layup to give the Huskies a 67-66 lead with 33 seconds left.

Go ahead. Throw four defenders at Kemba. He'll still make a play. He's that difficult to stop.

Which is why Rick Pitino was so frustrated when he felt the referees were giving the all-american a friendly whistle.

"He's not Michael Jordan!" Pitino yelled at the refs at one point during the game.

Kemba agreed. When informed of what Pitino said, Kemba said "I'm not Michael Jordan, I'm Kemba Walker. That's it."

And he's right. Kemba is not Michael Jordan, even if he played like it for five games in Madison Square Garden. No one is.

But Kemba is not the same player he was when he entered college as a freshman, playing a role behind AJ Price on a Final Four team. The writing was on the wall, however -- like when he scored 21 in Madison Square Garden against St. John's or when he scored the bucket that forced the first of six overtimes against Syracuse in the Big East Tournament.

Craig Austrie saw it.

"I knew he was going to be a player, but what he's doing now is just amazing," the former Husky shooting guard said after watching UConn win the Big East title. "The transformation in his game is unbelievable. I've never seen a player's game improve that way. His jumpshot. His fearlessness. His leadership."

"Its just unbelievable to see someone improve like that."

The point that Austrie is making isn't that Kemba struggled in his first season in Storrs. He averaged 8.9 ppg and 2.9 apg in 2008-2009, which is far from struggling. What Austrie was getting at -- and what I wholeheartedly agree with -- is that Walker is simply that good.

Maybe not Michael Jordan good (yet), but better than anyone we've seen in college basketball this season.

"He's the best player in the country right now," Austrie said.

Its tough to disagree with him after seeing what Kemba managed to accomplish this week.

That improvement didn't come easy, however. It took long hours in the gym, doing dribbling drills until his hands were calloused and shooting jumpers until his calves were cramping.

"This is what I worked for the whole summer," Walker said," this is what my whole team worked for, and the hard work is paying off."

The biggest improvement the junior point guard has made this season is in his mid-range and pull-up game. Last year, Walker had a very bad habit over-penetrating, of beating a defender and taking the ball all the way to the rim to try and finish amongst the trees. For someone standing all of 6'0" on a good day, challenging players 6'10" or 7'0" is not the most efficient way to score.

While Walker still takes the ball all the way to the rim this year, he's only doing it when he was a lane. When a big man rotates over in helpside defense, Walker isn't challenging him this year. He's taking that 8-10 foot pull-up jumper.

And making it. Walker is damn near automatic in that range.

"He's just out their doing his thing," said Andrea Walker, Kemba's mother, who sounded just as exhausted as Kemba did after five days of cheering her son at the Garden. "He's doing what I know he can do, and what the whole world now knows he can do."

"It's unbelievable."

Apparently, that is a popular way to describe Kemba.

Perhaps the most unbelievable part is that Kemba hasn't let this success -- the awards, the all-american nominations, and the flocking cheerleaders -- change him from who he is. His mother, who can be seen standing for the duration of every UConn game wearing her white No. 15 UConn jersey, was the first person he sought out in the crowd.

"I'm never nervous," Andrea Walker said when asked why she never sits down. "Its just that I like to cheer and keep him motivated."

"I know he can hear me."

What did he say to you after the game?

"I told him congratulations and he told me he loves me."

A mamas boy and a superstar?

No wonder the cheerleaders flock.

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