Kemba Walker is living a dream that he hasn’t awaken from yet. Well into his eighth NBA season, Walker says he still pinches himself trying to fathom that he’s not only a pro basketball player, but that he’s among the best in the world.
“Sometimes I can’t believe it,” Walker told Sports Illustrated. “There’s times where I’m on the bench thinking about that kind of stuff, like I can’t even believe I’m here, man. It’s pretty surreal, honestly.”
When the 2019 NBA All-Star Game tips off inside the Spectrum Center in Charlotte this weekend, it’s likely no player will receive as loud an ovation as Walker. Over the years, the Hornets’ star point guard has blossomed into arguably one of the best players in franchise history. Walker is making his third straight All-Star appearance and, for the first time in his career, he will start the game. He’ll do so in front of his home fanbase as Charlotte hosts its second All-Star Game.
“It means a great deal to me,” Walker says of participating. “It’s special, just because it’s here. It’s in Charlotte, in front of the people that watch me every single day, every single night over my career. It’s exciting. I can’t wait, man. I’m super excited. It’s going to be a special year.”
One could make the case that the entire year has been a special one for Walker, individually. In addition to his All-Star nod, the 28-year-old is on track to average a career-best 24.9 points, along with 5.6 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game. Earlier this season, he dropped a career-high 60 against the 76ers. He’s helped the Hornets, despite being three games below .500, enter the All-Star break in first place in the Southeast Division, positioned to win their first division title in their 29th year of existence. It’s possible the Hornets return to the NBA playoffs for the first time since the 2015-16 season.
Walker has been at the heart of it all, the Hornets going “as he goes.” But since being chosen with the ninth pick of the 2011 draft—Charlotte traded up to select the UConn product—the Hornets’ situation hasn’t always looked so promising.
“It’s changed,” Walker says, reflectively. “It’s changed a lot from when I first started.”
The early years were tough. Charlotte won seven games during Walker’s first NBA season; just 21 his second. He says when the franchise rebranded as the Hornets in 2014, it was a point where things “kicked off for us.” Still, there were moments when the 6’1”, 184-pound guard admits he questioned whether he belonged.
But Walker didn’t concede to apprehension. Instead, he exhaustively worked towards improving.
“I’m a better player right now than I’ve ever been, definitely [better] than I could ever have imagined,” Walker says. “I never would have thought that I’d become this type of player today.”
The league has taken notice. Walker has been a coveted man, his name floated during the NBA trade deadline over each of the past two seasons. He bashfully laughs at the notion of paying the rumors any attention. “I guess it’s a good thing to know that I am wanted,” he jokes before shifting back to his humble tone.
“For the most part,” he continues, “I just try to put my time and focus into my teammates and the organization I’m a part of now.”
Walker’s steel has been matched by the support of Charlotte’s fans, whom he credits for sticking with him since he first arrived. The connection Walker feels for the city itself is deeply personal. His support within the community is known. (He was a finalist for the NBA Cares Community Assist Award last year.) He has also partnered with JBL for its Sounds of the City campaign, collaborating with Charlotte rappers Rapsody and 9th Wonder to create an anthem for the city.
“This is the only place I’ve ever been,” Walker says. “I don’t know much else about any other organization or anything like that.”
Walker’s contract is due to expire this offseason and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. In a perfect scenario, he would like to remain with the Hornets. “This is a place that believed in me from Day 1,” he says. “I’m a loyal guy. I just wanna stay loyal to the people who are loyal to me.” But until the time comes to hold that conversation, he’s focused on getting the Hornets back to the playoffs.
In the midst of a postseason pursuit, though, Walker and the Hornets will get a chance to celebrate what he has given the city, and vice versa. In some ways, the 2019 All-Star Game serves as a culmination of Walker’s determination and Charlotte’s willingness to support him through his career’s progression.
“I’ve come a very long way, especially from my young career,” Walker says. “From not always being the best guy on the team to just increasing my work ethic every single year, every single summer. Just seeing the hard work pay off, I think that’s what’s most gratifying for me.”