Antoine Walker's First Year in Green
There's really no definitive reason why Antoine Walker is the best thing to happen to the Celtics in a long time. But after four days observing him at the team's rookie-free agent camp, one gets that impression anyway.
"He's a special player," said Celtics coach and director of basketball operations M.L. Carr, who selected Walker with the sixth overall pick in the draft two weeks ago. "He's got the talent to do just about anything on the floor, but it's more than that.
"I remember Antoine saying when he came here for the press conference a few weeks ago that he just wanted to fit in. He said he didn't want to take over things. But if you have it in you, you have it in you."
Despite his youth, Walker, 19, appears to possess that special star quality to which Carr refers. At 6-foot-9, 225 pounds, he's a unique package of speed, power and versatility, already distinguishing him from much of the league's incoming class.
But it's his personality off the court, combined with his natural flair and feel for the game on it, that could truly set him apart someday. The strong work ethic appears to be in place, as is a genuine enthusiasm for the game. Walker plays basketball as if he is having fun, a quality lacking in many of today's most gifted players.
"The money is great in the NBA, but it has to be more than just that," said Walker, who has been unable to sign a contract because of the league's moratorium on negotiations and signings. "I think to really make it at this level, you have to be driven by more than just money.
"The great players all have plenty of money, but they're still trying to improve and do anything they can to help their team win games. That's what makes them great. That's what makes them stand out from the rest."
Walker stood out from the rest of his teammates last season as a sophomore for national champion Kentucky, no small accomplishment in coach Rick Pitino's platoon-happy system. His NBA stock rose considerably during the Final Four and predraft pro camps, but the fact he averaged 15.2 points and 8.4 rebounds in just 27 minutes per game for the Wildcats during the season spoke volumes.
In fact, he's likely to be one of the only NBA rookies whose playing time increases this season. Walker, the Celtics' highest draft pick since they chose Len Bias with the No. 2 selection 10 years ago, realizes much will be asked of him.
"That's one of the reasons it was so important for me to come to this camp," said Walker, who returned home to Chicago today and will compete in a pro-am league the remainder of the summer. "After I was drafted, I was really anxious to get in here as soon as possible and get acclimated to the pro atmosphere and how this team likes to do things.
"I also wanted to get to know the Celtics' coaches and management and allow them some time to get to know me."
One of the camp's classic moments came when Walker discussed basketball with team president Red Auerbach. Asked if he planned to employ any of Auerbach's tips, Walker gave a hint of his character.
"To me, it's amazing just to have an opportunity to talk to a legend like Red Auerbach," said Walker, who has demonstrated a working knowledge of NBA history. "He's coached some of the greatest teams of all time, won more championships than anybody, and he's done so much for the league.
"You can't go wrong listening to any advice Red Auerbach wants to give you. I came to this camp to listen and learn. I think it's worked out well."
For everyone concerned. Walker's decision to attend camp was a major factor in the inordinately large crowds the Celtics attracted during the four-day event. He didn't disappoint, either, thrilling the crowds with an accomplished offensive game, solid rebounding and shot-blocking skills.
The most pleasant surprise, though, particularly for those less familiar with Walker's game, was his ability to dribble in traffic, view the court and make the correct pass. Walker was far and away the best passer in camp. He might already be the best passer on the Celtics.
"He's the best passing big man we've had here since Larry Bird," said Carr, who promises to exploit Walker's versatility at both forward positions and occasionally on the wing. "Having that kind of passer, especially with his height, can add so many dimensions to your offense. It's a significant weapon."
Carr has rolled the dice Walker will be a significant weapon for a long time. The future holds no guarantees, but summer camp has ended for the Celtics and the first-round pick is off to a good start.