NBA Draft

Pace is picking up for UConn’s Walker

NCAA title in hand, Kemba Walker aims at a pro career. NCAA title in hand, Kemba Walker aims at a pro career. (Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 22, 2011

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The Internet has a way of sucking in Kemba Walker. He tries not to pay attention to the predraft noise. But whenever he flips his computer open, he can’t resist.

“I just go on different websites, and sometimes I just happen to go on a draft site, just to see,’’ said the University of Connecticut guard.

The opinions are all over the place.

A couple of NBA mock drafts have him going fifth to Toronto tomorrow. One has him going seventh to Sacramento.

“Some have me three, five, seven, eight,’’ he said. “A lot of them are very different.’’

They pick over his strengths and weaknesses. They will say he’s “explosive’’ and “electric’’ and then add that at 6 feet 1 inch, he is too small to defend the current breed of NBA point guard.

“It’s crazy,’’ said Walker. “Some people just harass me sometimes, say some things about me, about my game — my game’s not going to translate to the NBA. I’m not a true point guard. I’m too small. I won’t be successful in the NBA.’’

Then he’ll dismiss it all.

Experts? Hardly. They didn’t grow up playing ball in the Bronx. They never had to strap the UConn team on their backs and lead it to a national championship.

Then, he closes the laptop.

“I really don’t care,’’ he said. “A lot of guys with the mock drafts have probably never even played basketball or know much about basketball.’’

He turns it all into a motivational tool.

“Nothing I can do about it,’’ Walker said. “People said that about me when I was going into college, and I proved those guys wrong. Anything can happen on draft night.’’

So, with that, Walker is preparing himself accordingly.

When he decided to leave school after his junior year, it was a no-brainer, he said.

“My stock probably wouldn’t be any higher than it is now,’’ he said. “It was my time. So I’m just trying to live my dream.’’

Walker’s team won the national title in April, he shook President Obama’s hand in May, and since then he has been on the predraft circuit. He worked out for just five teams: Charlotte, Toronto, Detroit, Sacramento, Utah.

Now, he is adjusting to a new world, in which he is something of a celebutant. In April, he became a one-man hot-button issue when he told Sports Illustrated that, even though he had graduated from UConn in three years, he had only recently read his first book in its entirety.

From there, the education-in-athletics debate started.

But since then, he has become a brand-builder, making business decisions before even being drafted. The Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr accounts are the entry points. He has become a pitchman, already shooting commercials with Best Buy, making mixtapes with DJ Skee, and doing late night television appearances with Jimmy Fallon.

“It’s been surreal,’’ said Walker. “Being in the line of work I’m in now, I’m going to have to get used to it. But it’s been a good experience. I have a good personality, so it’s about time that I start showing people my personality off the court.’’

Being a Bronx-born ballplayer, he is aware that celebrity can be a land mine. Hype has swallowed some of New York’s best ballplayers, such as Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair. Lance Stephenson, the state of New York’s all-time leading high school scorer, fell to the second round of last year’s draft, as off-court issues shot holes in his stock.

But Walker largely has been removed from the pressures. Playing in Connecticut helped.

“I went there because it wasn’t really far, but it wasn’t close,’’ he said.

While growing up, he never followed Marbury. He didn’t know about Telfair until he watched the documentary “Through the Fire’’ that followed Telfair’s senior season at Lincoln High School. He knows Stephenson well because they’re so close in age (Walker is a year older).

“I think New York guys do have a high expectation,’’ he said. “New Yorkers are tough people to please. We definitely have to try to excel in whatever we do.

“Playing basketball here in New York, it’s hard. As long as you stay focused, keep doing what you do, it’ll be fine. I don’t really play basketball like ‘I have to play for my city.’ But I’m happy to be from New York and I’m happy to rep them.’’

This week, Walker returned to Rice High School, where he averaged 18 points and 5 assists as a senior. The school may have to shut its doors because of financial issues, but parents and faculty, including Walker’s former coach Dwayne Mitchell, are fighting to keep it open.

Knowing Walker’s schedule would be busy with the draft just days away, Mitchell still got him to come to a rally Monday. Walker had no intention of speaking but got in front of the crowd anyway and told them Rice was more than just a school, it was “a brotherhood.’’

“He told me to come down there, and I told him I’d try my best if I had some time on my hands,’’ Walker said. “I was able to go, and it was good to see him.’’

From Bronx playgrounds to high school games at Madison Square Garden to cutting down the nets in Houston, Walker now finds himself at the NBA’s doorstep.

“I’m anxious,’’ he said. “I can’t wait. It’s a lot of things running through my mind. I want to hurry up and know where I’m going to be playing.

“Hopefully, I can go high in this draft. I’m just ready to go up and shake Mr. Stern’s hand.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at

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