Three past and present NBA general managers have already given up on Kemba Walker. But on Tuesday night, in an emotional preseason debut with his hometown team New York Knicks, Walker began a new chapter on his career and proved he still has plenty to offer.
Playing with a chip on this shoulder, Walker looked healthy and shifty. He scored 12 points on 50 percent shooting and dished out three assists in 21 minutes to help the Knicks steamroll Indiana Pacers, 125-104, in the Garden.
Walker was in no mood to spoil the sweet homecoming win when asked about his reaction to the latest Knicks snub in the annual NBA GM survey released earlier in the day.
â€œI could care less. Most [of these] GMs never played basketball. Letâ€™s be real,â€ Walker said. â€œWho cares what they think? I could care less. We believe in ourselves. Weâ€™re gonna play so hard every night. And thatâ€™s gonna give us a chance to win every night.â€
Despite his addition to the team, alongside Evan Fournier, the consensus among GMs around the league is that the Knicks would regress this season. Not a single GM voted for the Knicks to finish among the top four teams in the East. Their preseason victim Pacers received fourth-place votes. At the same time, Miami, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Boston got third and fourth place votes behind the top favorites in the East, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee.
While most GMs voted for Tom Thibodeau as the head coach with the best defensive schemes in the league, the Knicks were left off in the list of their top defensive teams.
RJ Barrett was flabbergasted.
“I don’t know. I agree with you. It makes no sense,” Barrett told reporters when the topic was brought up. “First of all, a Thibs-coached team is automatically gonna be a good defensive team. You have Nerls (Nerlens Noel) and Mitch (Mitchell Robinson) on the team like we’re gonna be good defensively. I’m not worried about that.”
Even without Noel and Robinson, the Knicks stamped their signature Thibodeau defense in the preseason opener. The Pacers’ offensive futility Tuesday night was on par with the Knicks’ league-leading defensive stats last season:
- Points Allowed: 104 (last season 104.7)
- 3P% Allowed: 34.1% (last season 33.7%)
- FG% Allowed: 41.3% (last season 44%)
There were concerns that their defense might drop when Walker and Fournier were brought in to replace Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton in the starting lineup. The win against the Pacers proved Walker and Fournier are competitors too on the defensive end.
Barrett was no longer surprised by the doubters and slanders that were coming their way.
“As you know, I’m used to it. It happens all the time. I mean I don’t really care. All I can do is just go out and improve. All we can do as a team is just play together and get wins. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what any other GM thinks, what anybody thinks. [What matters] is what we think, what work ethic that we have, and how that translates on the court.” Barrett said.
“Whether it’s me personally or us as a team, we just get disrespected all the time. As I said, it doesn’t matter. We just do, just like what we did last year — just go out and show we have improved.
The steadily improving Barrett dropped 17 points on an efficient 3-for-6 from the 3-point zone and 7-for-14 overall shooting Tuesday night. He flaunted his much-improved offensive arsenal — from catch and shoot to off the dribble and coming off screens — developed from his thrice-a-day summer training and extra shooting drills the night before games.
The 2019 third overall pick said the NBA All-Rookie Team snub had fueled him. This summer, the ESPN Top-100 snub added to the chip on his shoulder.
“First of all, I’m still motivated by that. That’s never gonna change. Every time I stepped on the court, I gotta prove, I gotta show everybody who I am, what I can do on the court, and why everyone was wrong about me,” Barrett said. “Being the underdog is fun. It makes winning better.”
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