Essay: Kemba Walker And The Curse Of Being A “Winner”
Being labeled a “winner” may be as damning of a label as you can get from someone. Maybe even worse than “loser.” At least being a loser gives you an opportunity to rise up and become a winner. But being a capital-W Winner means there’s nowhere else to go, and everybody wants to be where you are. It’s no surprise then that so many with that label seem to drop off so fast. When you’re drafted to an NBA team with that label, you’re expected to bring the “winning attitude” with you, and make everybody else winners.
It’s illogical, and it’s resulted in a lot of players being mentioned for their college achievements and not their pro career. Let’s be real, it’s about how you play with the big boys. Is it any wonder that so many young men only go for one year of college? It isn’t just about the money. It’s about getting money while you still can; while expectations are low, and people will give you more time (and more contracts).
Of course, many of the best players in this league came straight out of high school, and none of them wake up in a cold sweat wondering what would life be like if they won a national title in college. You want to be Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, or Corey Brewer? No. You’d surely prefer the life of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, or Dwight Howard.
Now, there are tons of examples that go against this. MJ, Magic, and Ewing are three, but all of those guys were clearly touted for their pro skills from the get-go. People knew these guys would have an impact on the league. They weren’t just winners. They were good.
But for Kemba Walker, that “winner” label has thus far come behind “good.” I know, hard to imagine anybody from the 7-59, 2011-12 Bobcats still being called a winner, but Walker’s 2011 National Championship is the proof in the pudding.
Walker was given the ultimate backhanded compliment at the end of his college career: he was the best player on the best team in the nation, but wasn’t given the Oscar Robertson Trophy, and wasn’t selected in the top five of a horrible draft. The biggest, most horribly-hidden secret that the NCAA has (and it has a LOT) is that college success doesn’t matter in the pros. Yet if you find it, you can never hide from it. Kemba could’ve learned that from Bobcat draftees Emeka Okafor (National Champion), Adam Morrison (Championship Runner-Up), Raymond Felton (National Champion), or Sean May (National Champion), and it’s now knowledge he can pass to National Champion Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Instead, Walker learned the hard way. It turns out people kinda like “crash ‘n’ burn” stories, and it seemed Walker was ripe to deliver one. Walker became something of a side show. “See the amazing National Champion playing backup to D.J. Augustin on the worst team in NBA history!”
Walker kept getting asked the same old questions about how it “felt” to be on such a shitty team, and like any good foot-soldier, he used the magic word “frustrating” to carry him through the muck. That’s not to say it wasn’t indeed frustrating, it’s just frustrating for me to only hear that word whenever a team is losing in the NBA. Kemba’s cool nature didn’t always show up on court, either.
There were way too many games when he was relied on as the primary scorer, and it resulted in him making a paltry 39% of field goals and 30% of his treys. Kemba put up some points in college, but that’s the key word: some. Kemba’s your standard all-around point guard, and his season stats managed to convey that. Averaging 12 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists with almost one steal in 27 minutes of action per game earned Walker a team-high 14.9 PER. It’s not a great number, but it’s solid, which is exactly what the tire fire that was last year’s Bobcats needed.
This year, it’s a fairly different story. Walker’s the starter now, and has a good combo guard backup in Ramon Sessions— who honestly could be starting on, like, half the teams in the league. But even being bolstered by strong shooters in Sessions, Ben Gordon, and Gerald Henderson (okay, maybe not “strong”, but they do in fact score points), Walker is now leading the team in scoring while shooting a healthy 42% from the field.
He’s also increased his assists per-game to 5.5 and average 2.5 steals, showing he’s got defensive prowess that his game, and the entire team, was missing last year. Walker isn’t lighting anybody on fire, but he’s playing leader on a team that is looking refreshed, and has rookie head coach Mike Dunlap in conversation for Eastern Conference Coach of the Month. It may not be much, but at the very least, Kemba Walker looks like a winner once again.