It’s okay to find the feel-good in Kemba Walker’s return to New York

Knicks play up signing of hometown kid, and why shouldn’t they?

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From left to right, Kember Walker with Joe Girardi in 2011, Walker hitting the winner for UConn in the Big East tourney in 2011, and Walker with the Charlotte Bobcats, warming up before an exhibition game against Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School alumni in 2011.
From left to right, Kember Walker with Joe Girardi in 2011, Walker hitting the winner for UConn in the Big East tourney in 2011, and Walker with the Charlotte Bobcats, warming up before an exhibition game against Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School alumni in 2011.
Illustration: AP & Getty Images

From the land of chopped cheese and quarter waters emerged the coldest motherfucker to come out of New York City playgrounds and gyms since Sebastian Telfair in 2004. And that same guy is now a New York Knick, bringing it full circle 10 years after being drafted into the NBA, and after hitting possibly the most-watched step-back jumper of all time.

It feels like ever since LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, that “home” became not just a talking point for NBA fans but a theme among NBA players. That’s not to say he invented the concept — remember how special it was for Derrick Rose, from Simeon High School, mind you — to be drafted No. 1 overall by the Chicago Bulls, despite them having a 1.7 percent chance at winning the lottery. Carmelo Anthony famously received the literal “I’m Coming Home” treatment after forcing his way to New York City in 2011. But even more recently, Kyrie Irving went to go play for the Brooklyn (formerly New Jersey, where he’s from) Nets, and Russell Westbrook is now with the Los Angeles Lakers. We celebrate players who return to their hometown, whether it’s an attempt to win a championship or otherwise, and Walker to New York sparks a special emotional reaction from New Yorkers.

Can’t you tell?


Back when New York City newspapers covered high school sports, Walker was one of the most talked-about athletes in the boroughs. Today, we actually have reasons to discuss the Knicks because, for the first time since Anthony’s departure, they’re going to be relevant for consecutive seasons.


First, the Knicks only got him for two years and $18 million, so that’s a win in itself. But, primarily, the Knicks also trotted out Elfrid Payton for back-to-back seasons as their starting point guard. So long as Walker could remain relatively healthy, he’ll be an upgrade and a fairly easy one offensively.

Now, health… that’s the most important thing here. Walker was one of the most durable players in the NBA before joining the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2019. Through his first eight seasons in the league, he played 616 regular season and playoff games, missing just 35, or 4.4 games per season, making him one of the most durable athletes in the league even at a listed 6-feet tall. Through two years in Boston, he played in 119 regular season and playoff games, missing 47, and often playing limited in many others, particularly since the second half of the 2019-20 season.


As far as numbers go, take this from last week:

“Through the first 40 games of the 2019-20 season, Walker’s first in Boston, he had been averaging 22.4 points, 5.0 assists, and 4.0 rebounds on 45/40/88 shooting splits, and was an All-Star starter representing the Eastern Conference two weeks later. It was around that time that Walker’s knee became an issue that has devalued him ever since. Following the All-Star Game itself, which was played on February 16 — and in which Walker played 29 minutes — he averaged 14.4 points, 3.8 assists, and 2.8 rebounds on 40/34/85 splits, including six regular-season Bubble games. In the playoffs last year, he elevated to 19.6 points, five assists, and four rebounds on 44/31/85 in the Celtics’ 17 postseason games before they were eliminated by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. This season, Walker was limited to 43 games, in which he averaged 19.3 points, 4.9 assists, and 4 rebounds on 42/36/90 splits.”


Walker’s knee is in question, but basketball-wise, he’s an easily better fit than Payton next to what will likely be a starting line-up of Walker at point guard, RJ Barrett, Evan Fournier, Julius Randle, and either Mitchell Robinson or the newly extended Nerlens Noel from 1-5. If you’re a Knick fan, if you’re a Kemba fan, if you’re a New Yorker, or you just had Illmatic when you were little, you are reasonably expecting this signing to work in some regard.

In Boston, you may have expected more assists while playing next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, both of whom reached another level when he got there. However, both created many of their buckers off the dribble, with Walker often deferring to either. In New York, it could be similar with Barrett and Randle — but having Walker and Derrick Rose (third for last season’s Sixth Man of the Year) man the point guard minutes is an upgrade for a team with playoff hopes. If Walker could play at least 60-65 of the upcoming 82-game schedule while averaging, say, at least 15 points and five or six assists per game while playing 28-30 minutes per contest, you’d sign for that as the bare minimum. You’d hope he’s closer to the 19-5 averages from last season, but you’d prefer even more that he doesn’t need to be. And that’s the point: The Knicks actually have this as a luxury, low-risk signing. If it doesn’t work at all, there’s an easy out… you just hope it goes the other way because, if we’re being deadass, who loves a hometown story more than New Yorkers?