Charlotte Hornets star Kemba Walker played every minute of the second half in willing his team to victory Friday. Chuck Burton AP
Charlotte Hornets star Kemba Walker played every minute of the second half in willing his team to victory Friday. Chuck Burton AP

Charlotte Hornets

‘I ain’t coming out!’ With Kobe-like zeal, Kemba Walker wills Hornets to a win.

February 02, 2018 11:10 PM

I don’t care how dark and dank the Charlotte Hornets’ dungeon is, you can’t trade away Kemba Walker just to hit the reset button.

Have you watched what Walker did these past two games? Back-to-back games of 38 and 41 points in victories over the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers. Walker, who started out his NBA career as a mediocre-to-poor 3-point shooter, has made 14 of his last 25 attempts from 3-point range. He is now two 3s away from passing Dell Curry for the most career 3s made in franchise history. That feat surprises no one more than Walker, by the way.

His final line Friday in a 133-126 victory: 11-of-22 from the field, 5-of-12 from 3-point range, 14-of-14 from the foul line. Nine assists. And a charge taken with just more than a minute left that avoided what should have been a sure-thing transition score by the Pacers’ Bojan Bogdanovic.

Walker played all 24 minutes of the second half. Every timeout, Hornets coach Steve Clifford inquired whether Walker needed a rest. Either verbally or with the expression on his face, Walker replied, “I ain’t coming out!” Clifford recalled.

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I don’t begrudge the Hornets’ front office for gauging Walker’s trade value. I understand the dangerous place this franchise is in: an aging team with one of the NBA’s highest payrolls that is still seven games below .500 and probably not going to reach the playoffs.

But you can’t trade Walker for anything short of a no-brainer deal that brings in another All-Star quality player and still fixes the salary-cap mess that exists now and next season, too. And I don’t see such a miracle deal presenting itself before the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

There are many things to love about how Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker plays, including his willingness to sacrifice his body.
Chuck Burton AP

Twice in the past two weeks opposing coaches have volunteered before a game against the Hornets that Walker might be as competitive as any player in the NBA. The Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer said that in Atlanta Wednesday. New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, who grew up in Shelby and played for Appalachian State, was more emphatic in description of how Walker is wired.

Gentry went so far as to compare Walker to future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant in his will to win at anything. I mentioned Gentry’s comment to Walker Friday morning at shootaround. You should have seen the grin that induced. Walker said to be compared to Bryant in any fashion is a special distinction.

Hornets owner Michael Jordan saw that in Walker in the months leading up to the 2011 draft, when Walker was leading Connecticut to the national championship. On multiple occasions, Jordan has said he saw himself in how Walker pulled the Huskies to that championship.

Walker said Friday he’s been that way for as long as he can remember. It’s a byproduct, he said, of frequently being the smallest starter in any game he plays. There are many things to love about how Walker plays. I’d rate right up there his willingness to sacrifice his body, as in when he took that charge from Bogdanovich, a player who outweighs Walker by nearly 50 pounds.

I understand the frustration in the fan base, and the accompanying incentive to just blow this up and start over. But there has to be a way to work toward a fix that doesn’t involve sacrificing the only reason to get excited about watching a Hornets game.

Kemba Walker wants to be here, to be part of the solution that makes this Charlotte Hornets team competitive in the postseason. He’s loyal, he’s passionate ...

Walker was devastated – his word – when he learned of ESPN’s initial report that the Hornets were canvassing the league for his trade value. Jordan looked to mitigate the damage when he called me a few days later to say the Hornets weren’t “shopping” Walker, and it would take an irresistible offer to justify moving him.

Walker wants to be here, to be part of the solution that makes this team competitive in the postseason. He’s loyal, he’s passionate, and as Gentry described, he has a competitive streak that is rare even by the standard of the most elite NBA players.

The only thing you could fault Walker for Friday is maybe not paying enough attention to his health and well-being by demanding he not take a rest after halftime.

Clifford used Walker virtually without a break down the stretch in the 2013-14 season to qualify for the playoffs. It was a calculated risk. Now, there are about 30 games left in the season. Clifford said that it’s too early to push Walker’s stamina to the limit. Still, Clifford listens when Walker’s competitive zeal hits the red zone.

“Whenever he starts coming over telling me” he’s not coming out, Clifford said, “I’m not going to argue with him.”

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell