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9.18.2008

Employee #8 Still Adjusting to the NBA

Antoine Walker's First Year in Green
11/96

Last Friday, Celtics rookie Antoine Walker got a visit from his old college coach, Rick Pitino. They talked before the game.

``He was in town to see me before his season really got started,'' Walker said. ``He told me to listen to the coaches, to work hard.''

Pitino did not divulge any future plans.

``He'll stay at Kentucky,'' Walker said. ``To the best of my knowledge, anyway.''

He would have liked to have chatted more, but the team was going to Chicago. Pitino had time to admire Walker's attire and then it was over. Once he got to Chicago, well, Walker's a townie and the friends from the 'hood wanted to see him and the game.

He needed 35 tickets for the Bulls game. He needed an afternoon just to visit his old stomping grounds, check in on grandma and see his 2-year-old daughter, Crystal, who lives with her mother in Chicago. The game? He went 2 for 10 from the field. He was embarrassed on defense by Toni Kukoc. His team lost by 12 to fall to 1-4.

Yesterday, Walker was back at work. He has found after two weeks that it is both cathartic and beneficial to have that outlet.

``I can focus on basketball and nothing else,'' he said. ``That's what makes it good. This is a business and I have to focus on it. But it's all I have to worry about and that is good. The guys have been great. Really helpful.''

Everything is still so new and different. There's the incessant travel and the number of games and the daily grind -- and he's only been at it two weeks. And did we forget the losing? Four losses in 10 days. That's two years' worth at Kentucky.

Walker, only 20, is the most highly touted rookie to play for the Celtics since Larry Bird. (Let's face it; no one had the remotest clue what we were getting with Kevin McHale.) He is athletic, talented, creative, versatile and it all comes packaged in a 6-foot-9-inch frame that enables him to play anywhere on the floor.

How does he feel knowing that not only is so much expected of him but that he is being ordained as the straw that stirs the drink before the liquid even has been poured?

``I like it,'' he said. ``I know it's a learning experience and I have to work on my game and be more consistent. But I think I'll be able to produce.''

Added Dino Radja, ``He came to the NBA after just two years of college and that is a hard thing to do. But what I like about Antoine is that he is tough. He doesn't quit. He's very emotional. He just has to learn to channel that emotion in the right direction and he will be a fine player.''

So far, after five games, Walker is getting a crash course in NBA 101. He had 23 points against the Bucks in his second pro game. In his next game, he had 5 against Indiana. He had 5 against the Bulls Saturday, and he shot 4 of 22 in those 5-point games. He has been a starter, sixth man and seventh man. He is averaging 12.4 points (shooting 36 percent), 5 rebounds and, ahem, 2.8 turnovers. He is sixth on the team in minutes per game at 25.

M.L. Carr has brought Walker along slowly, wary of putting too much, too soon on the obviously talented and clearly willing forward. But yesterday the coach said that is going to change. Walker, who started the first three games, is due to see more time.

``You are about to see Antoine and Eric Williams connected at the hip,'' Carr said. ``You have to have that 1-2 punch on your team. The good teams have them. Bird and Parish. Magic and Kareem. David and Goliath. Jane and Tarzan. We're going to go with Eric and Antoine more. They're young. They play well off each other.''

Celtics fans have been calling for such a move since Day One, recognizing that the two are the Forwards of the Future. Apprised of the development, Walker, easygoing and friendly as it is, broke into a wide smile.

``I love that,'' he said. ``That's something I've wanted to do and waited to do. I think I'm capable of doing it. Me and Eric have a good feel for each other and play off each other.''

Walker is keeping tabs on the other rookies. He saw No. 1 pick Allen Iverson in the flesh Friday. He saw Ray Allen, the guy picked just ahead of him, score 18 against the Celtics in only 21 minutes. He knows most of the players through college, all-star games, summer camps, sneaker be-ins, rookie orientation. He thinks John Wallace is proving everyone wrong, but beyond that, he can't make an accurate assessment after just two weeks.

``Each guy may have a different role on his team,'' Walker said. ``Some guys aren't playing. Others are. John should have been taken higher than he was NOT_FOUND18th overallNOT_FOUND and he has something to prove.''

Walker doesn't have that luxury. He is expected to produce, to make a statement, have an impact and help turn around the Celtics. Maybe it's just as well he has nothing else to worry about. That seems like plenty.

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