CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hornets owner Michael Jordan probably wishes he had a few more players like Kemba Walker. Perhaps then his team might be a regular NBA playoff contender.
The hard work. The passion. The dedication.
They are all qualities that Jordan said Walker possesses and led the point guard to become the franchise’s career scoring leader on Wednesday night.
“He exemplifies what it means to be a Hornet,” Jordan said in a statement.
Walker scored 21 points to pass Dell Curry with 9,841 points on a night LeBron James scored 41 points to help the Cavaliers cruise to a 118-105 win over Charlotte.
Walker may not be as tall or possess the same leaping ability as Jordan, a six-time NBA champion, but he does play with the same all-out intensity and desire to win that His Airness did when he was winning titles for the Chicago Bulls.
The problem is Walker just doesn’t have nearly the supporting cast that Jordan did in his heyday.
The Hornets are on the verge of failing to make the playoffs for the fifth time in seven seasons since Walker arrived in 2011. It’s hardly his fault, as he’s developed into a two-time All-Star and a dominant scorer who’s averaging better than 20 points per game the last three seasons while improving his shooting percentage each year.
“His effort, leadership and commitment to our team and the City of Charlotte is second to none,” Jordan said.
Walker’s hard work has not gone unnoticed.
James — who tied Jordan’s record by scoring in double figures for the 866th consecutive game — said Walker has earned the respect of players around the league, even though the Hornets haven’t been a consistent playoff contender.
“Listen, if you can be the all-time leading scorer in any franchise, that’s incredible,” James said. “That’s an incredible feat. I definitely went over and just told him how incredible that was. Even though with the season that they’re having, when accomplishments happen throughout the season, you try not to take them for granted.”
Walker was emotional after the game, needing a towel to wipe away tears after he was interviewed on the court in front of an applauding crowd at the Spectrum Center — a rare deviation from the impenetrable New York City toughness he always displays on the court.
But after retreating to the locker room, Walker sat at his locker with his head down while still upset over the loss.
“That’s one thing that has allowed him to become the great player that he is,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Walker’s distaste for losing.
Clifford said it would be hard to find a player who has improved as much as Walker over the past three seasons.
“He’s a great story,” Clifford said.
Walker became emotional because he started to remember what all of the doubters said along the way. He said that he “wasn’t supposed to be here.”
“There were doubts when I got drafted,” Walker said. “I’ve seen plenty of articles and things like that I probably wouldn’t be an elite point guard. I wanted to prove people wrong. And when I got my first contract, they said I was overpaid. I proved them wrong again. That’s what I’m about. I’m about working, getting better and proving people wrong.”
Given the changing landscape of the NBA, the four-year, $48 million contract Walker received in 2015 now looks like an incredible bargain. If he continues to play at this level — and there is no reason to suspect he won’t — he could receive a max contract following the 2018-19 season.
Walker said he would like to stay in Charlotte, but he noted that also wants to win.
The Hornets have lost in the first round of the playoffs in Walker’s previous two postseason appearances, and the man who won a national championship in college at Connecticut is growing tired of watching the playoffs on television.
The big question will be if Jordan decides the Hornets need to blow things up and use Walker as a bargaining chip in trade talks, or whether the team should continue to try to build around the 27-year-old point guard.
Jordan created a stir earlier this year by saying he would trade Walker at the right price, but then held onto him instead of sending him to Cleveland or elsewhere.
“I’ve always been committed to this place,” Walker said. “This is where I got my start. This is where I’ve grown as a man, as a person and as a basketball player. I don’t think it will be up to me. We’ll see.”
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