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Walker hoping to point Bobcats in right direction

Kemba Walker (above) impressed Michael Jordan with his speed and shooting. Kemba Walker (above) impressed Michael Jordan with his speed and shooting. (Todd Somlin/Associated Press)
By Gary Washburn
September 11, 2011

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As he darted up and down the court with his NBA brethren in a scrimmage against some of the elite high school players in the country, Kemba Walker took mere moments to display why he should succeed in the league.

The speed of the undersized guard astonished those who hadn’t seen him in person as he led Connecticut to the national championship last spring. Walker enjoyed a fascinating junior season, leading a young and unproven bunch to the program’s first crown in seven years, an improbable run that began in the Big East tournament.

Walker was the star, the blazing-fast guard who dropped winning shots, using killer crossovers and stepbacks. He was the best player on the court, but that distinction ended the moment UConn won the title and he was evaluated by scouts whose job it was to determine whether Walker could flourish as a pro.

As the NBA draft approached, there was a sudden drop in regard for Walker, even though he was a first-team All-American. Teams apparently backed off because he is barely 6 feet and may lack true point guard skills.

Walker’s goal in the final workouts before the draft was not to impress every team, but just one. And the ultimate decision-maker gave him a nod of approval.

Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, nabbed Walker with the ninth overall pick, placing the fate of his franchise in the guard’s eager hands.

“Before the draft, I was hearing so many things,’’ said Walker. “You slipping, you might go 17.’ And I told my agent, ‘Just don’t tell me nothing else. Just let whatever happens, happen.’ That’s what he did.

“I can’t complain. I’m definitely excited that I’m with Charlotte and Michael Jordan. He had a huge input on what he wanted and that was exciting.’’

Charlotte has had trouble acquiring a franchise-caliber point guard that can lead the team to respectability in the Eastern Conference. Raymond Felton was drafted in 2005, but after an uneven tenure, he was allowed to leave and eventually signed with the Knicks. D.J. Augustin, taken in 2008, had his share of struggles.

Scouts questioned whether Walker was a pure point guard or just an undersized shooting guard. That is not an issue with him.

“I’m a 1 - there’s no question that I am a point guard,’’ said Walker, who averaged 24.6 points last season, primarily as a shooting guard. “I can just score the basketball, that’s it.

“Why can’t I do both? Why can’t I do everything? Pass, score, rebound. That’s what I have been doing my whole life. I’m an all-around player.’’

The Bobcats are in desperate need of a signature player. They traded Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace last season, leaving the opportunity for Walker and 19-year-old rebounding menace Bismack Biyombo to become cornerstones.

Walker was pleased to be Jordan’s handpicked selection.

“It was a dream come true, of course,’’ Walker said. “I have been wearing [Air] Jordans my whole life.

“It was a little surreal. He wanted me, he was trying to get me. So yeah, I’m excited.’’

Like all NBA rookies, Walker has been prohibited from talking to Jordan, donning the Charlotte orange, or displaying that speed with his new teammates because of the lockout. And he is impatient.

“It’s been real difficult,’’ he said. “Of course as a rookie, I would love to be with my coach and my teammates.

“I am in contact with some of my teammates, but as far as the coaches, it’s a little frustrating. I would like to start learning new things about the NBA game.

“I’m just looking forward to whenever that time comes. It hasn’t yet [affected me] but it will soon.

“As rookies, we’re all real anxious to play basketball, to get things going. We came here to play basketball and this happened to us. But we’re going to stay strong until we get the best deal possible for everyone, and I’m just counting on my counterparts to do the best job for us.’’

Until then, Walker acknowledges, he still daydreams about the last college season. The Huskies won five games in five days in the Big East tournament and then glided to the NCAA championship game, where they beat Butler, 53-41. Walker was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

“There are days I just wake up and think about it and I don’t know how we did it, still,’’ he said. “Over the course of the summer, they have been showing games [on television] and I got a chance to watch some of the old games. And I talk to some of my old teammates.

“I already miss it. I already miss them. It was something that I will definitely always remember.’’

With unexpected free time during the summer, Walker has kept in close touch with UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who considered stepping down after the season. But the Huskies are once again expected to be ranked in the top 10, led by stellar sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb.

“I can’t see that man giving up, he loves it too much,’’ Walker said. “The day he retires, will be, wow, I won’t even believe it until he tells me.

“He’s a great guy. He helped me a lot and I would love to see him coach as long as he can. You come into the program as a boy and you leave as a man.’’

Brand healthy and confident Elton Brand has never been lauded for his athleticism. The 76ers forward earned a $90 million contract for his work ethic, midrange scoring, and vigorous rebounding. But during a recent pickup game at UCLA, Brand recovered a loose ball under his own basket, leaped with little effort for a reverse dunk, and headed downcourt on defense.

Brand is coming off his best season as a 76er, averaging 15 points and 8.3 rebounds and shooting 51 percent as Philadelphia returned to the postseason after a one-year absence, losing to the Heat in the first round.

This coming season is a significant one for Philadelphia and Brand. The 76ers are considered a team on the rise, enjoying unexpected success after starting last year 3-13.

With Jrue Holiday running the point, Andre Iguodala finally appearing comfortable with his role, second-year swingman Evan Turner, an improving Thaddeus Young, and a finally-healthy Brand, they could offer the Celtics a semblance of competition in the Atlantic Division.

As for Brand, he is entering the fourth year of the five-year, $90 million deal and wants to prove he is capable of a nightly double-double at 32. And like many of the league’s 30-something players, he feels a sense of urgency to get this season started, as career mortality is approaching.

Brand has already sustained a torn Achilles’ tendon and had major shoulder surgery during his career.

“It’s critical, especially for me,’’ he said. “I lost too many games and years due to injuries. I’m finally getting healthy, getting my legs back.

“Not being able to play at the highest level is disheartening. You want to play. You don’t want to lose a year.’’

Coach Doug Collins fueled the 76ers’ resurgence by emphasizing team effort. No player averaged more than Brand’s 15 points, but six scored in double figures and 10 averaged at least 10 minutes per game. Some core players are 25 years old or younger, and chemistry could be damaged greatly by a prolonged lockout.

“We got momentum,’’ said Brand. “The young guys felt what the playoffs feel like. They know that, ‘Hey, we can compete.’ They feel good about themselves, so to wait another year for that would be disappointing.’’

Brand benefited from the 1999 labor agreement, as he was a rookie the year following the lockout. A few weeks ago, he told reporters he was pessimistic about the chances to play a full season, and he has remained vocal about negotiating a deal fair for both sides. He is not backing down from that leadership role.

“You need to talk and speak up,’’ he said, “because the older veterans spoke for me when I was young to make the deal the best they could for us. So you’ve got to speak up as well.

“We’re in a [union] meeting with young guys, but Paul Pierce is talking, Kobe Bryant is talking, I’m asking questions. The veterans have to lead it.’’

Brand has had his detractors since he departed the Los Angeles Clippers three years ago. He has yet to live up to the gargantuan contract, but a healthy and productive season boosted his confidence and cemented his status as a cornerstone.

“To be healthy and to play and to lead the team to the playoffs, that’s kind of an indication,’’ he said. “But I got more in store and I am working hard so we can have even a better season.’’

Garnett plans a gathering The Celtics have been a separated bunch since the lockout began, with Rajon Rondo spending most of his time in Kentucky, Ray Allen golfing in Connecticut, and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett relaxing in Southern California.

The 76ers players were one of the first groups to hold an organized workout, as Elton Brand and several teammates gathered at UCLA.

With mid-September approaching, and this season critical for the franchise, Garnett was asked whether he would organize a workout in Boston.

“I’m going actually to the East Coast sometime soon and I am actually going to try to get everybody together just to be in the same area,’’ he said.

“I see that Paul was in China. I’ll probably bump into Ray and Rondo while I’m on the East Coast just to see what’s going on. I’ll probably talk to [Jermaine O’Neal].

“It’s not a lot of guys, but we’ll try to get the four if not five [starters] together just to interact, but, yeah, it’s been difficult.’’

Vegas ‘league’ is in the cards NBA players have been looking for opportunities to stay in shape and face capable competition in the summer. As the labor situation reaches a more urgent stage, several have decided to collaborate in Las Vegas for an 11-day league that will culminate in a Sept. 23 championship game.

Noted trainer Joe Abunassar has organized the league, which will begin tomorrow at his Impact Basketball center, a multi-sport facility that several players use for offseason training.

Among those committed to play are the Knicks’ Chauncey Billups, Shawne Williams, and rookie Iman Shumpert; the Wizards’ John Wall; and Kyle Lowry, Chuck Hayes, Chase Budinger and Courtney Lee of Houston. Jermaine O’Neal, who committed to fulfilling the final year of his contract with the Celtics, also will play, along with J.J. Hickson of Sacramento, Al Harrington of Denver, and former Boston College standout Jared Dudley of Phoenix.

Teams are expected to consist of seven to eight players, and NBA teammates will be on the same squads.

This is as close to NBA play as fans will get until a collective bargaining agreement is reached.

Timberwolves forward Kevin Love hinted at a barnstorming tour that would begin if the season is postponed. He said he has European offers but is more committed to promotional tours with other NBA players.

As the lockout continues and perhaps carries into the season, many players will make decisions on their futures. But there appears to be a consensus among them that the season won’t be canceled, so they remain in a holding pattern.

Plan is a fit for the Kings The city of Sacramento is doing its part to keep the Kings, releasing a $400 million stadium plan last week to replace the dated Power Balance Pavilion. The new plan will avoid widespread tax increases, an idea Sacramento residents voted down soundly in 2006. The Maloof brothers, who wanted to relocate to Anaheim before Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson secured one more season for the city with a convincing presentation to commissioner David Stern, appear content with the proposition. A statement from the team said, “The Kings organization views The Nexus Report as a very positive step toward the goal of a new entertainment and sports complex that will bring substantial economic benefits to the entire region and we hope will enable the team to continue playing in Sacramento. We were pleased with the report’s conclusion that funding for the project can be achieved using various revenue sources, none of which involve any broad-based tax. We look forward to continuing to work with all interested parties to bring the project to completion.’’

Layups The Celtics are waiting for the lockout to end before they announce a lucrative 20-year deal with Comcast, and the deal may have softened ownership’s stern stance on the labor situation. With the Comcast deal, the Celtics should remain financially healthy for the near future . . . Former Michigan State and Mavericks standout Jay Vincent was sentenced to five years in prison for his participation in a scheme that took millions of dollars from people expecting to become home inspectors. Former Michigan State teammate Magic Johnson testified on behalf of Vincent, asking for leniency. It is yet another example of a former NBA player struggling financially after his playing career ended. While the league prepares its rookies for league life, little is done for those approaching retirement, and these stories are becoming more prevalent as the economy worsens and opportunities to work in the league become scarce . . . Suns president and CEO Rick Welts, the first openly gay sports executive, surprisingly resigned Friday. In a statement, Welts said, “I’m at a point in my life where my focus is to align my personal and professional life in a way I’ve never been able to achieve before. The most important people in my personal life are not in Phoenix, and the Suns have been completely understanding and supportive of my request to leave in advance of the end of my contract.’’ The Suns have undergone a management facelift in the past few years with Welts and former Ray Allen agent Lon Babby becoming the brain trust of the organization.

Gary Washburn can be reached at Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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