The Kemba Walker Era begins, in earnest, on Wednesday afternoon when the Celtics formally introduce their latest maximum-contract signing at the Auerbach Center.
Walker won’t inherit quite the same burden of expectations that some of Boston’s previous big-ticket splurges did upon their arrival. When Al Horford and Gordon Hayward signed on — the latter’s entry coupled with the offseason acquisition of Kyrie Irving — the Celtics’ ceiling raised a bit and the team was perceived closer to title contention.
Walker arrives to a somewhat flawed roster, one that still doesn’t feel quite set even after a busy summer. There are question marks in the frontcourt with the departure of Horford, Aron Baynes, and Marcus Morris, and the team’s younger players must reassert themselves.
The more immediate pressure on Walker is leadership. As the Celtics attempt to wash the bitter taste of last season out of their mouths, Walker must prove he is the palette cleanser. And while those that have spent time around Walker have gushed about his by-example leadership, his biggest task might essentially be doing what Irving couldn’t last season: Getting the best out of those around him.
Walker is no stranger to being the face of a franchise. That’s been his role the better part of the past eight seasons in Charlotte. In Boston, the three-time All-Star will face a harsher spotlight, but one that will also bathe him in affection if he is to get the most out of his new teammates.
By all accounts, Walker is eager for the challenge. In the goodbye he penned to Charlotte, he was emphatic about a desire to show that he is a winner. In an arena with 17 banners, there’s always a pressure to compete — regardless of the varying heft of expectations — and the quickest path to endearment is simply winning.
What Walker says at Wednesday’s introduction will set the tone for his tenure as the new face of the franchise. That’s a spotlight he should be able and willing to share if Hayward reverts to his old form, or if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown make the leaps that many have been waiting for. Walker can expedite all of that, both with his play and his words.
Jim Calhoun, Walker’s college coach at the University of Connecticut, was emphatic that Walker would make his teammates better. After the Celtics emerged as frontrunners for Walker last month, Calhoun gushed about the way he could lead.
"I think the big thing is that he makes Tatum, he makes Brown, he helps Gordon Hayward come back. He makes a lot of terrific players be exceptional players,” said Calhoun. "There are very few guys you're going to get in basketball -- not only are they really good, but they make others better both psychologically, winning-wise … He's a special talent who can make other players better.”
Added Calhoun: "He brings special things to his teammates. Trust me, I was always amazed at how much his teammates loved him and followed him.”
Walker will be quizzed Wednesday about his leadership. He’ll be asked for his opinions on his new teammates. There is no reason to think he won’t say all the right things and, soon, he’ll get the chance to prove he means them.
A year ago, Celtics fans were clamoring for nothing short of a trip to the Finals. Now, it feels like most would sacrifice some wins for a spike in likability. Expectations can surge again if the Celtics show potential on the court but, right now, Celtics fans yearn for a team they can simply wrap their arms around (hence the lovefest that enveloped the spunky summer league squad in Vegas).
Walker can start the healing process from last season on Wednesday. After two stars exited, he can emphasize his desire to be here. He can express excitement about the potential of this group, while noting all the things he plans to do to help the Celtics reach it.
Walker formally receives the leadership baton on Wednesday and he needs to be ready to run with it.
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