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Have you thought about what it’s going to be like heading back to Charlotte?
Kemba Walker let the question linger in the air for a moment. He had been gushing about the infancy of his Boston odyssey and the talent he’s now surrounded by during a quiet moment last week. The early season visit to the only team he knew for the first eight seasons of his NBA career had truly crept up on Walker.
“It’s coming quicker than I thought. I know it’s going to be pretty emotional. But I’m looking forward to it,” Walker said before pausing again while a sly version of his trademark smile appeared.
"I really want to beat them.”
This wasn’t a malicious, “I really want to beat them,” just a refreshingly honest moment from a player who has admitted that the realization his future wasn’t in Charlotte initially ripped him apart inside.
Four months since signing a four-year, $141 million maximum-salary contract with the Celtics, Walker is very much at peace with how it all played out. He’s reveling in what he’s found with his new squad, including maybe the most talented group of teammates he’s ever played with. The Celtics have won five straight after Tuesday’s win in Cleveland and sit atop the Eastern Conference. Walker is a big reason for that early success.
Walker is averaging 26 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1 steal over 34.7 minutes per game. He’s shooting 40.4 percent from the floor overall but has climbed to 42.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc. His usage rate remains high — 29.8, or just slightly lower than the career high 30.8 percent from last season — and yet it’s clear Walker is perfectly content to be deferential when someone else has the hot hand.
Maybe more importantly, Walker has seemingly blended into his new surroundings, empowered those around him, and subscribed to all that made the Celtics so damn likable before last season. He’s been every bit the palette-cleanser that the team so desperately needed after last season’s headaches.
Walker is eager to show his old team that he’s doing just fine now and remind them why they should have splurged to keep him around. And while he avoids the cliche just-one-of-82 suggestion, the trip back to the Queen City is more about seeing familiar faces, especially the family members like his mother, Andrea, and sister, Sharifa Nesbitt, who still reside there.
"It’s going to be fun. I’m really looking forward to it,” said Walker. "Going back, obviously seeing my family, seeing my old teammates, everybody in the arena, and just everybody around the organization.”
The visit would simply be a little bit sweeter with a W against his former team.
Celtics rookie Grant Williams was 12 years old when Charlotte drafted Walker with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft. The then-Bobcats had only one first-round sweep to show for their efforts after the franchise got rebooted in 2004 and Walker offered hope for a brighter future.
Walker played in only 11 playoff games with Charlotte and was never able to get the team out of the first round but his impact on the franchise went beyond wins and Williams, who used to venture to Spectrum Centre to watch Walker dazzle, confirms it will be emotional experience on Thursday.
"I remember those days. I think we went 7-59 or something like that in Kemba’s first year. I remember all those trials,” said Williams. “I feel like it’s going to really hit him because he hasn’t been back inside Spectrum since he left. To go back and play in front of those fans that supported him, and he was an All-Star there, he led them [to the playoffs twice]. I think about the things he accomplished for those Hornets/Bobcats teams that wasn’t necessarily considered a big-market team and it’s tremendous all he did for the city.”
Williams said his local high school, Providence Day School, has already swooped up at least 400 tickets to come watch the rookie’s first game in his hometown but he’s perfectly fine being the secondary attraction to Walker.
"I don’t know how their attendance has been this year at home games so far but I know that game is going to be pretty lively,” said Williams.
The presence of so many potential Celtics supporters might ensure a warm reception for Walker, though Williams can’t see it going any other way.
“Kemba was such a genuine person and a nice guy, I would be surprised if there’s a crowd of boos,” said Williams. "Maybe some, just because he left and that’s how the league works — when you leave a team, people take it their own way. But I feel there will be a lot more cheers.”
Walker is a bit more definitive.
"It’s going to be good,” he said. "No boos.”
Walker has heard about the first time Gordon Hayward went back to Utah, right? He knows sometimes fans can be bitter.
"I heard. I heard about [Hayward’s return],” Walker said chuckling. "No, it can’t be any boos. There’s no way. I haven’t really done anything wrong to deserve any boos or anything like that. I’m thinking it will be love. But who knows? We’ll see I guess.”
If fans boo because Walker and the Celtics are headed to a victory against his old team, well, Walker can live with that.
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