CHARLOTTE – Kemba Walker is the face of an NBA franchise, a city and All-Star Weekend.
The Hornets point guard is making his first All-Star start in the city and arena of his home team. He is the unofficial host of this weekend’s festivities.
“It’s great for the city, great for the community,” Walker told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m excited. This city is excited. It’s about time we got an event like this here in Charlotte.
“Charlotte means a lot to me. This city has embraced me – allowed me to be who I am, allowed me to grow as a man. I just love the city. This team drafted me, believed in me when I was young.”
Walker is having a career year. He’s averaging 25.2 points, 5.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds and is shooting 43.5% from the field and 36.7% on three-pointers. He’s the reason the seventh-place Hornets are poised to make the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time since 2016 and just the third time since Walker was drafted in 2011.
“Everything I’ve seen so far this season, he’s trusting his teammates,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “That trust is going to make us a better team, not only now but in the future. That’s not easy when you’ve carried the load for so long. You feel like you have to deliver every game.
“But he understands to win this league, you need other people to step up. People step up best when they’re trusted and valued, and that’s what Kemba is striving toward.”
‘I always believed this kid was an All-Star’
Walker’s season and All-Star Weekend are set against the backdrop of a larger issue: Walker will be a free agent this summer. Are we watching the final games of his career with Charlotte?
By all accounts, the Hornets want to re-sign him. Hornets owner Michael Jordan was complimentary of his All-Star on Tuesday.
“Having Kemba as an All-Star gives me great pleasure because I always believed this kid was an All-Star, and he has proven that three years in a row and this year by being a starter,” Jordan told reporters. “He represents the city very well and the organization very well.
“I am very proud, even though it may not look like it, of Kemba Walker from day one. We drafted him. Always thought there was something special about this kid. I still believe that.”
Now, they must be willing to pay to keep him.Walker, who at 28 is in the prime of his career, will command a lucrative contract. If Walker makes All-NBA this season, the Hornets can offer him a five-year, $221 million supermax contract. If he’s not All-NBA, the Hornets still can offer big money: five years and $189.6 million.
Another team can offer him a max four-year, $140.6 million contract, and if the New York Knicks miss out on Kyrie Irving in free agency, don’t be surprised if they go after Walker, a New York City native.
Walker will hit unrestricted free agency for the first time. “I don’t know how it goes,” he said. “Me and my agent will sit down and get it right.”
It appears he has plans to stay. He recently bought land on which to build a home outside of Charlotte.
“I feel like it’s a normal life for me,” Walker said. “I’m never overwhelmed here whenever I do want to get out of the house – walk around, walk around the mall, be me. That’s what I love the most.”
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‘This is my city!’
By all accounts, Walker also is a great teammate. Borrego calls him inclusive regardless of title in the organization or status on the roster.
“He wants guys to feel a part of this team and this city,” Borrego said. “He understands where he is in the organization. He understands the responsibility that comes with that. No matter the young guys or coaches coming in, he’s welcomed them and embraced them. It puts everybody at ease to say, ‘I belong and I’m a part of it.’
“That’s just Kemba’s spirit.”
When the Hornets signed Marvin Williams in 2014, Walker reached out.
“He’s one of the coolest dudes I’ve ever met,” Williams said. “ … He and I developed a relationship from day one. He was very welcoming. He’s been that same guy for five years. I’m sure he was that guy before, and I’m pretty sure he’ll be that guy going forward.
“When your best player and leader comes up to you and says, ‘Hey man, I’m glad you’re here. I’m really happy to see you and welcome to Charlotte,’ it makes you feel wanted.”
Veteran guard Tony Parker made a surprising decision in the off-season to sign with Charlotte and be Walker’s back-up point guard. Parker won four titles with San Antonio and a EuroBasket championship with France and one day will be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Parker noticed right away Walker’s willingness to learn.
“He was asking questions and wanted to get better,” Parker said. “He wants to become the best he can be and go as far as he can go. …
“He can definitely score, a little bit like me when (I) first arrived in the NBA. … the thing for me was trying to become a better point guard – knowing when to attack, when to pass, when to score, the timing of the game and know when someone is hot and what kind of plays to call and just managing egos and making sure your teammates get better. That’s where I can help him the most.”
Walker has improved his game in two discernible ways. He’s taking and making more three-pointers, and he’s getting into the paint near the basket for more shots. He has attempted 5.5 shots per game inside the restricted area, up from 4.3 last season, and is shooting 53.1% from that zone, according to nba.com/stats.
He is fifth in three-pointers made (187) and second in pull-up three-pointers made (122).
He scored a season-high 60 points against Philadelphia, has three other 40-point games and 14 more 30-point games.
“I know I have to score for this team,” Walker said. “But I just try to read the game as best as I can and take the shots that are given to me.
” … When I’m aggressive getting to the paint and drawing defenders, it opens up passing opportunities to get my teammates involved.”
He is producing at this rate while defenses are keyed on him with double-teams and sometimes triple-teams.
Earlier this season, in a 43-point performance against Boston – the game after his 60-point night – Walker yelled “This is my city!” after he made a three-pointer to put the game away.
“It was just the emotions of the game,” Walker said. “I don’t know the last time we beat Boston before that. I was in the moment really.”
How much longer will Charlotte still be Walker’s city?
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt