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Sorry Jimmer -- Kemba Walker was 2011’s top college athlete


Mike Miller

During this summer’s ESPYs Award Show I, for the first time in the history of man watching award shows, was yelling at the screen denouncing an award recipient.

Jimmer Fredette, Joseph Smith love him, was given with the Male College Athlete of the Year Award over distinguished collegiate athletes Cam Newton and Kemba Walker.

I was fuming. It was already about 85 degrees outside, so awarding Fredette with a trophy really worsened an existing temperature problem.

We all appreciate Jimmer Fredette. He was the perfect David character for the 2010-2011 college basketball season because he played in a non Power Six conference and had an unorthodox game.

But he was no Kemba Walker. He didn’t carry his team to a shocking Maui Invitational crown, he didn’t galvanize his teammates after a pedestrian 9-9 conference record, and he didn’t lead one of the most prominent and “number one with a bullet” programs to an unblemished neutral court record en route to an improbable national championship.

Looking at both the tangibles like statistics and skill set, and the intangibles ranging from charisma and flair for the dramatics, Kemba Walker is inarguably the college athlete of the year for 2011.

His arc is a perfect example of why it’s OK to spend more than one season in college, and his maturation as both a player and leader that climaxed during his junior season helps solidify his case. Walker also wasn’t the center of a pay-to-play recruiting scandal that followed Cam Newton around for the majority of his Heisman and Championship winning campaign. As special as his year was, it will be marked with an asterisk by more than a few people.

A highly-touted McDonald’s All-American oozing with skills that were perfect for highlight seekers, Walker was probably over his head at times during his freshman season. He ran too fast and dribbled too much. Despite scoring in double figures in 11 games, the learning curve to becoming consummate point guard and lottery pick - not just an ankle breaker – was significant.

His sophomore year Walker showed signs of maturation. He assumed the starting point guard role and improved many of the statistics we deem important.

But it wasn’t enough. Walker was really good, not great, and the stage was set for one of the most memorable individual college basketball seasons in the past decade.

Initially, I was not impressed. So what if he averaged exactly 30 points and shot 55 percent from the floor in his first six games? Walker was still that sort of flash in the pan guy in my mind. He was just relishing being the go-to guy early in the season. Opponents didn’t know how to defend the Huskies.

By January it was pretty clear that the Huskies, despite plateau and losing a few games here and there, were not going anywhere. They had proven to be underrated coming in to the season and were serious threats to cut down the nets in Houston. Number 15 for the Huskies had just about everything to do with it.

Kemba Walker’s on court theatrics and was such an incredibly uplifting story in an otherwise mediocre season in terms of talent. As the face of a top-tiered Big East team, we desperately needed him to keep us interested. From his hot-out-of-the-gate start to his January theatrics in Austin to his incredible month of March, Walker delivered at each critical point in the season.

Looking at this a macro point of view, his ear-to-ear grin and confident style of play were prominently on display during a time when college athletics are currently revealing to the country its seedy underbelly.

Penn State, Ohio State, Miami; a not so flattering perception has been presented to the general public that calls in to question the inequities of how the NCAA and universities treat student-athletes like commodities and turn a blind eye to shady handling of that commodity if it means preserving a pristine image. Even the University of Connecticut is guilty of that.

Anointing Kemba Walker as the college athlete of the year in these parts doesn’t quite make up for his ESPY snub, but hopefully it’s some sort of consolation.

He’s off in the NBA now, enjoying a rookie season that looks promising. Barring injury, Walker has a long pro career ahead of him, one that likely had no chance of playing out if he didn’t blossom into a college superstar this past year.