Kemba Walker is a rock; he is an island

by Bryan Harvey

Supposedly no man is an island, but on any given night, Kemba Walker’s teammates look, in their calypso teal jerseys, more like Mediterranean waves lapping at the hardwood shores than a supporting cast.

Every basket he scores is knowledge of self as praxis. His teammates rarely set him up. Sometimes they don’t even screen all that well for him. He’s Tom Hanks. They’re all named Wilson. You get the idea. Even his general manager acts more like a god punishing Greek war veterans than a man with any sort of plan for improving a basketball team. At best, the team is built for playoff appearances, no more and no less. At worst, they have Kemba Walker, the Robinson Crusoe of East Trade Street.

In his time with the Charlotte Hornets, the organization has drafted the following players in the first round: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Shabazz Napier, Noah Vonleh, Frank Kaminsky, Malachi Richardson, Malik Monk, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Four of these players were top ten picks. Of those four, only Malik Monk’s game appears to still be chasing potential. Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller, and Kaminsky are not bad players, but they are all defined by their limitations. Napier, Richardson, and Gilgeous-Alexander were all traded on their respective draft days with results akin to lost ships. Maybe Miles Bridges will find a port for his talents while still wearing a Charlotte uniform. Maybe not. Whenever a verdict is reached on Monk and Bridges, whenever they finally hammer out their NBA statuses or have their statuses hammered into them,  Walker may be wearing another team’s uniform.

The problem isn’t so much each individual draft choice, but that Nicolas Batum is still arguably Walker’s best teammate after six seasons of his bailing out Charlotte’s decision-making. Even knowing the team currently boasts three other players scoring in double-digits besides Walker, one knows: Better players were available, and worse players were chosen. The Charlotte Hornets are no better than they were at the end of Al Jefferson’s tenure. The lack of progress as a team exaggerates the individual shortcomings of all these draft choices, and as a result, Kemba Walker’s drives are never linear progressions because the future cannot materialize in Charlotte. He is already somewhere else. (He may be building “a dream house” in Charlotte, but properties can be sold, rented, or Airbnb’d.)

Normally, I’m an advocate for remembering history. There is a physics to the past. The present must come from something. But in the case of Kemba Walker performance requires a nightly forgetting that the universe really has abandoned him. He is averaging 28.1 points per game, but he exists as a trade rumor. Still, his exile on Hornet Island never ends. He doesn’t even really have the cult following of a lesser player like Dion Waiters, although that may be inevitably changing. More and more, he is slashing his way into a historical footnote, and one day NBA fans will scour the basketball reference pages trying to better understand the NBA map during the Golden State era. When that happens, when all those who lived it are no longer around, Kemba Walker’s Charlotte years will whisper like pottery fragments from some Lost Colony; disjointed and off the coast of whatever the future did become.

Consider the following tweet as an update on Kemba’s trending status:

The Hornets are only one game above five hundred. They lost to the Philadelphia 76ers two nights ago in overtime, but even as his team scratched another L on a tree trunk, the argument for Kemba as spectacle only grew stronger.

After trailing by 21 early, Kemba started lashing a life raft together. Despite starting 2-for-17 from the field, he ended the game 9-for-12 (11-for-29 overall). The man is a goldfish with a handle. On one play, his crossover into a step back 3 created a time zone difference between himself and Philadelphia’s Robert Covington. (In fact, the next day Covington found himself a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves and in the Western Conference. Kemba can apparently move other players, but not himself.)

On another play, he repeated the same move with J.J. Redick guarding him, only to pass up the jumper, opting instead, after a hesitation dribble, to drive straight at Joel Embiid. The result was coconuts. With Kemba, though, such plays aren’t truly highlights — he does this level of crazy on a regular basis. Then, in between the dizzy defender at the moment and all the dizzy defenders in the near future, everyone forgets what exactly Kemba does. Maybe even he forgets. And then history repeats, while still appearing spontaneous and free.

Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Because his team loses as often as it wins, much of what Kemba does on the basketball court happens in a void. Inevitably, this uncertainty — this lack of a clear trajectory or path — prompts comparisons that try to make his play less abstract. If Kemba Walker cannot be known by end results, then he must be made known in kind.

The easy comparison is Kyrie Irving, but the comparison isn’t quite right either. While the greatness of Kemba’s teammates can be dismissed, their existence cannot be. They depend on him. Kyrie, on the other hand, has played much of his career with an abundance of talent around him. That’s not a knock against Kyrie. That’s a fact, and that fact assures Kyrie’s star a lifespan even after his career fades. Kemba Walker is here for the moment and then gone. One is most likely a generational referent, while the other is woven into the tapestry. The difference is the line between a religion and a cult; between real science and the YouTube conspiracy.

Admittedly, playing with great talent isn’t the end all. Talent can lift all ships, but talent can mask those within its proximity too. Kyrie, like Klay Thompson in Golden State, can go off at any moment. And yet, when he does, shock ensues, as if observers did not fully expect the player to detonate once again, as if his last outburst should have burned up his remaining fuel reserves. When greatness is on spot duty, greatness can appear inconsistent. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will probably never be given their dues by future fans. Chris Bosh and Kevin Love will also look smaller in the rearview. Their teammates made it so, but their teammates also anchor them in the timeline. When the time arrives to update the documentary archives, they are assured of being either subjects of the interview or in the least interviewees.

But even with all these possible quirks and means of measuring an individual short of his abilities, playing without talent is a far easier way to disappear than playing with it. How many players have lost themselves as a result of not having some greater good to chase? Stephon Marbury comes to mind, as does late career Allen Iverson.  Charlotte doesn’t play on national television often. Kemba’s game is still something of a local hotspot. You either have League Pass or his game is part of an oral tradition circling round the flames; the sparks rise in a smoky haze and blend with the constellations. When you do happen to see him, he appears ant-like and frantic, as if he were scurrying across the sand, dragging driftwood and charred branches into the shapes of letters on the beach. Individuals do not always stockpile such resourcefulness in an unlimited supply. Who could have predicted what befell Isaiah Thomas after his best season? Thus, the time to watch Kemba Walker is now.

The point here isn’t necessarily just about legacy and accolades. The game of basketball, after all, is not always about historical pecking orders and fortifying one’s self within the mythic canopy. The marketing will often suggest that’s all there is, but there are memorable moments in forgotten games and they often include individuals of much less renown than Kemba Walker. (Once again, look to the end of any team’s bench.) Not everyone or everything makes it into the monolithic documentary, even if the documentary includes 20 hours of footage and interviews. The point here is to watch a star player exist in a way few star players ever do because either the framework of their teams or the league denies 28-year-olds such an environment as the one where Kemba Walker currently resides in Charlotte.

Everyone knows the ceiling for his team, and yet his ceiling is in question. His production this season outpaces any prior version of himself. The team is not better, but the team is also not worse. No additional All-Star has been added to the team. No rejuvenating force is present other than his own will, and while he’s still 28-years young, he’s also 28-years old. If he can read a map, then he knows this is probably it in Charlotte. No supply ship’s arrival is on the horizon. This moment is possibly all that exists.

Is he the best point guard in the Eastern Conference? The nature of the point guard position is always ripe for debate. After all, so many effective methods exist for running an offense, the position becomes an aesthetic preference.

Maybe John Wall was once the number one point guard in the Eastern Conference, but such a title always qualified his talents as much as it proclaimed them. And now the proclamation is mostly made in jest. Still, he could always rise from his DC grave.  Farther to the north, Kyle Lowry is the point guard for the Eastern Conference’s best team; he is part of something greater than his own talents. His play is important; tangible and workmanlike in its results and made sharper by the presence of Kawhi Leonard. Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving is a magician with the ball. His magic can also be the rule; he is a champion. Yet he isn’t entirely indispensable to his team’s future. They have and could win without him. Then consider Giannis Antetokounmpo for a moment and the conversation drifts toward athletic evolution and its relation to purpose, as if all organisms must exist to bear results. In a similar fashion, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons must finish The Process, but there is no Process proper in Charlotte, North Carolina. There is only Kemba Walker.

These other players by virtue of the teams they play for must always act out the great thought experiments of the civilized world. They embody the noble expectation, or the disappointment that arises when the roster experiments fail. They are dreams and nightmares; strategies and destruction. But Kemba Walker is something else. If you want respite from the world around you — if you want to disappear into oblivion — then Kemba Walker can do that for you as well as anyone. He alone is singular. He alone is annihilation. In the quick of his crossover, nothing else matters. Nothing else exists. The aftermath will live in the mouths of ghosts and missing artifacts.

Bryan Harvey You Can't Eat The Basketball

Bryan Harvey is the founder of You Can't Eat the Basketball. He contributes to The Step Back, The Classical, and The Cauldron. In the past, he has written for ESPN True Hoop’s The Baller Ball and Hardwood Paroxysm. He has published some poetry and short fiction. He lives and teaches in Virginia.