Celtics

Kemba Walker: UConn's best guard ever

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Kemba Walker: UConn's best guard ever

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com Staff Reporter Follow @mary_paoletti
Is Kemba Walker is the greatest guard to play basketball at the University of Connecticut?

The idea bubbled up from the lips of excitable analysts and even giddier fans after UConn won its third national championship on April 4.

What about now? Can The Greatest -- an oblique and overused sports tag -- be qualified on solid ground, down from the high of the title run? Current pros and three-year Connecticut products Richard Hamilton, Ben Gordon, and Ray Allen could complicate the question.

Walker joined those players in the NBA ranks when he was selected by the Charlotte Bobcats with the No. 9 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, but ignore the NBA achievements and consider only their college careers.

Walkers final season at Connecticut leads the pack in almost every category: total field goals (316), free throws (258), steals per game (1.8), points per game (23.5). And he got the least rest of the four players (37.6 minutes).

Ray Allen averaged more rebounds during his last year (6.5). He should have, at 65; Walker is barely 61.

While Gordon had a higher assist percentage (4.5), his total didnt lead the team in 2004 Taliek Browns did. Kembas 184 assists in 2010-11 were best of the bunch by 60.

Donny Marshall is unbothered by the 21-year olds lofty perch on the Husky totem pole.

And he knows well how the thing is built. Marshall is a member of the UConn All-Century Team -- one of only nine forwards named -- and has worked with the program since graduating in 2005.

Theres no question Kembas the best guard to come out of Connecticut. I would even consider him as the best player to come out of there. Ever, Marshall says. Im thinking of where he came from. When Kemba came in he couldnt really shoot, he didnt really understand defenses, didnt understand how to make guys better. He learned.

Rip Hamilton remembers the feeling.

I think we all come in thinking that were good, but in actuality were really not ready. We really dont understand the college game and how to play, Hamilton explains. Head coach Jim Calhoun stays on us. Coach has always been the type of guy that always pushes you in practice, but lets everybody know that youre the best player in the country.

He always does a great job of that regardless of how good you are, regardless of how much you accomplish, regardless of if youre an All-American.

Walker was.

He was a Consensus Unanimous First Team All-American. He was voted First Team All-American by USBWA, Sporting News, AP, Wooden, and the NABC. He actually has a wheelbarrows worth of awards that have been piling up since Novembers Maui Invitational MVP honor.

They added up to a National Championship.

Richard Hamilton and Ben Gordon have titles, too (won in 1999 and 2004, respectively). But neither had to win eleven straight games while toting along seven freshman five of whom got major minutes as Walker did.

Ask Gordon today about his 04 tourney run and his appreciation for teammate Emeka Okafors MVP performance still sounds fresh.

And it makes the glow around Walker shine brighter.

Thats probably the most impressive thing, is the cast of guys hes doing it with, Gordon says. Aside from Jeremy Lamb, a lot of the guys hes doing it with are very good players, but more like role players who just fit in to do exactly what theyre supposed to. On our team we had so many pros that, from anybody on any given night, could have had a monster night.

Gordons point about singularity makes the universitys retirement of Walkers number seem less aggressive.

UConn immortalized the golden guard in the Husky Hall of Fame on April 5. Some college basketball analysts and writers balked at the idea of honoring Walkers memory while he was practically still sweating from the title game.

Player nominees have a five-year consideration period. Walker didnt wait 24-hours.

Kemba just had the greatest year in the history of UConn basketball, the coach told the Hartford Courant. He deserved this.

Theres no debating Walkers position on the Husky heap. Yet, even way up there its still possible to sell him short. Donny Marshall is most impressed, not with when, but how Walker willed his number 15 up on that Gampel Pavilion wall.

Its one thing to say hes a great player because he scores and look what hes done, Marshall says. But its another to say that he listens; he paid attention, soaked it all up. A lot of kids who are in his position think they know it already. The fact that he could listen, open himself up and say, Look how much better I could be if I take it all in.

Third Team All BIG EAST to Naismith Trophy finalist is one hell of a leap.

Walkers springboard was a timeless clich: Be the first one in the gym. Always.

As an underclassman he was first in, last out, always asking for extra shots. When NBA vets like Rudy Gay and Hilton Armstrong visited their alma mater, Walker didnt want to play with, but against them.

Rather than show off what he could do, he used Gay, Armstrong, Kevin Ollie and Marshall as resources to learn and improve on what he could not do.

It was young humility, it was rare, and it struck Marshall significantly.

The alum recalls watching freshman Roscoe Smith make a defensive reach during an early season practice. Smith got beat on the play and his man pushed the ball up the floor. To Marshalls disappointment, Smith jogged back on defense.

The lesson was for Walker.

I said, You know what, K? When I was here with Kevin Ollie and Ray Allen we would grab somebodys shirt and say, Get your ass back on defense. Run the floor, Marshall says. Thats what youve got to do. Its not a popularity contest. Theyre going to be mad at you, but in the end its going to pay off.

At the same time Kemba knew to tell guys, you miss a couple shots and its alright; Im gonna get you an easier shot, a better one. He would never give up on them. Marcus Williams (2003-06) was a very, very talented point guard, but if you missed a few shots he would go away from you no matter who it was. Kemba he just understands that you need those guys to win.

Walkers learned leadership won Connecticut its championship.

The 2010 roster had more talent and more experience. Senior Jeff Adrian anchored the team down low. Junior point guard Jerome Dyson played hard, he was tough. Sophomore swingman Stanley Robinson was a freakishly athletic NBA prospect. They are the reason UConn earned an AP preseason ranking in the Top-12.

Dyson and Robinson are also a large part of why those Huskies recorded the programs worst win percentage (.529) since 1986. Marshall calls the pair two of the greatest, but most selfish, athletes to go through the program.

Without them, Walker found his voice, and UConn became a team again.

I think very few of us are able to transmit how we feel to others, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said in Houston. I think Kemba does it two ways. Obviously, his physical abilities on the court, but I think his incredible passion for us to be successful off the court, I think to transmit that to the other group of guys is an unusual gift that Kemba has.

What a match for Jim Calhoun. Not just any athlete can succeed under UConns bench boss, says Gordon.

Calhoun is relentless, he says. If you go to the school two things are going to happen: hes either going to make you or break you. Either youre not going to be able to play for him or youre going to figure it out and become a better player.

Former Husky Charlie Villanueva agrees. When prompted about the classic Calhoun crook, the coachs fiery penchant to yank players off the court immediately after a mistake, Villanueva laughs and shakes his head. He acknowledges the harshness of Calhouns trademark expression of disappointment. He also claims himself the wiser for it.

You gotta come ready to play, Villanueva says. Every minute you get on that court, you earn it. Nothing is given to you.

Is that Walker or what?

Work ethic and heart those ooey-gooey intangibles that analysts love to gush about really are what took this kid to the next level. Its what drove him to become a student of the game, to take 500-1,000 jump shots every day last summer, and to listen and learn from those who played before him.

The whole thing sounds so Hoosiers sometimes. Thing is, the longer you talk with those who worked with Walker, the easier it is to imagine him there ripping off jumpers in the yard long after Jimmy Chitwood had gone to bed.

I think when youre on that level mentally theres nothing that can stop you. I think thats what made Kemba successful, Gordon says. Hes always had the heart, hes got a great work ethic, and with that comes a lot of confidence. Hes carried that all the way to the championship.

Walker could have been content to be good at Connecticut, but he willed himself to be great.

The greatest.

Mary Paoletti can be reached at mpaoletti@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

For Celtics, winning streak is history in the making

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For Celtics, winning streak is history in the making

BOSTON – Beating the Atlanta Hawks 110-99 on Saturday did more than just pad the win total for the Boston Celtics.
 
It moved them even further up the food chain to what has already been a pretty amazing season.
 
Saturday’s win was their 15th straight, which places them in the penthouse of great Celtics runs of success.
 
Only four other teams in this franchise's storied history have won more consecutive games than this year’s group.
 
Here at NBC Sports Boston, we take a look back at the four teams that are ahead of the Celtics in what has been one of the greatest streaks in franchise history.


 
19 straight wins:  Nov. 15, 2008 – Dec. 23, 2008
 
Fresh off claiming Banner 17, the Celtics were determined to take their place among the all-time great Celtics teams by winning a second straight NBA title. They seemed well on their way with a 15-2 start to the season and of course, their 19-game winning streak. But what turned into a season-ending knee injury suffered by Kevin Garnett later in the year derailed their date with destiny and instead ended with them being upset by the Orlando Magic in the second round of the playoffs , brining a quicker-than-expected end to one of the best regular seasons in franchise history.


 
18 straight wins: Feb. 24, 1982 – March 26, 1982
 
Boston was still considered the best team in the East, although Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers were very much closing the gap. The Celtics dodged a number of close calls during the streak with seven games decided by five points or less, including a 98-97 overtime win at Washington in which the Bullets (now Wizards) went into the fourth quarter with a nine-point lead. The Celtics’ streak eventually came to an end at the hands of the Sixers, which, in hindsight, served as a precursor for Boston losing to Dr. J and the Sixers in the playoffs.


 
17 straight wins: Nov. 28, 1959 – Dec. 30, 1959
 
The Celtics were defending NBA champions and seemingly off to a strong start, only to lose back-to-back games to Philadelphia. While it was still early in the season, they knew they had to quickly right the ship. And they did. During the 17-game winning streak, 12 were by double-digits with only three by five points. The streak ended on New Year’s Day 1960. But by then, the Celtics had re-established their presence atop the NBA landscape and would go on to claim the second of eight straight NBA titles.


 
16 straight wins: Dec. 19, 1964 – Jan. 22, 1965
 
There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that this Celtic team was going to have a special season. They got things going with an 11-0 record right out the gate. And they weren’t just winning games; they were thumping teams with flat-out beatdowns, which is evident by their average margin of victory being by 18.5 points per game. That’s not all that surprising when you consider most of Boston’s core group consisted of players in their prime such as Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn. The streak began with a double-digit win over the St. Louis Hawks and would roll along for another couple of weeks. During both the start of the season and the 16-game winning streak, both cemented Boston as the team everyone was chasing. And no one caught them. The Celtics continued to be the dominant force in the league and the season ended with another title, which was the franchise’s seventh straight.

Celtics need to let Morris continue feasting on seconds

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Celtics need to let Morris continue feasting on seconds

It gets harder to find problematic areas when a team wins 15 straight, like the Boston Celtics have.
 
But there are some. Boston’s inability to develop a consistent scoring threat when the second-unit players are on the floor hasn’t cost them a game yet, but you can see it coming if they don’t address this at some point.
 
Well, the answer to their second-unit struggles may be staring them right in the face – Marcus Morris.
 
While he does go back and forth as a starter, keeping him on the floor in the second quarter with the second unit makes sense for all involved.
 
Morris is a better scorer than many expected, but opportunities aren’t as plentiful with the first group. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are the top two options. The team’s young wings, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, probably stack up slightly higher in the scoring pecking order than Morris.
 
So for him to get quality looks with the second unit in the second quarter not only helps the team offensively, but it keeps Morris even more engaged than he already is.
 
We saw that in Saturday’s win over the Hawks.
 
Morris had 14 points, with 10 coming in the second quarter when he was surrounded primarily with players off the bench.
 
 “We need Marcus quite a bit,” said coach Brad Stevens. “We’re still managing his minutes appropriately as he comes back.”
 
Morris missed the first eight games of the season because of a sore left knee. Since his return, his minutes have been capped at around 25 or less, in addition to not playing back-to-back nights..

But as he continues to play a more significant role, look for his minutes -- and his role as a primary scorer in the second quarter -- to increase.
 
“He brings us scoring," Stevens said. "He brings us defense, he brings us toughness, and we really needed his scoring (against Atlanta), his ability to shoot the ball both off broken plays and off movement.”
 
Here’s a look at five other takeaways from Boston’s 110-99 win at Atlanta to extend the team’s winning streak to 15 in a row which is the fifth-longest streak in franchise history.



 
JAYLEN BROWN'S EMERGENCE

The improvement in Jaylen Brown has been evident all season, but it's really spiked the last two games. The second-year wing player dropped 22 points on Golden State Thursday, then followed that up with a career-high 27 Saturday. Conventional wisdom tells you not to bank on Brown delivering like that on a consistent basis. But as a former No. 3 overall pick who works as hard as Brown does . . . would anyone be surprised if this becomes a new-norm when it comes to Brown?


 
HORFORD STREAK CONTINUES
 
Early foul trouble and an overall lack of flow offensively had Al Horford looking at having his first game of the season with a negative plus/minus. At the half he was at -16. Then came the Celtics’ second half surge which saw them turn a 16-point deficit in the first half into a double-digit victory. And Horford’s plus/minus? For the game he stood at +2, keeping his streak alive of having a positive plus/minus in every game played this season.

KYRIE IRVING
 
An efficient scoring Kyrie Irving is an NBA team’s worst nightmare. One of the league’s well-established scorers, Irving was just too much for the Atlanta Hawks to handle. And the end result was one of the most efficient scoring nights in Irving’s career as he tallied a game-high 30 points on 10-for-12 shooting.


 
TATUM'S SECOND-HALF SURGE
 
For the second straight game, Jayson Tatum did not begin playing his best basketball until the second half. Against the Hawks, Tatum scored all of his 14 points in the second half. And in Thursday’s win over Golden State, 10 of his 12 points came in the second half. “For whatever reason he was pretty tentative (in the first half),” said Stevens. “He’s a good player, so struggles aren’t going to last long. He’ll figure it out.”


 
SMART'S SHOOTING (SLIGHTLY) BETTER
 
There’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to Marcus Smart’s shooting. Against the Hawks, he had 10 points on 3-for-8 shooting. Now the numbers won’t wow you, but they are a huge step in the right direction in comparison to how he has been chucking up shots lately. In Boston’s previous five games, Smart was a face-cringing 10-for-52 shooting, or 19.2 percent from the field. Even with all the impact he makes consistently with his defense and effort, that number has to continue to improve if Boston is able to continue along its winning ways.

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