It may be two years late, but Kemba Walker is coming home to New York at a time when he needed someone to believe in him.
The four-time All-Star battled with a nagging arthritic left knee as he was reduced to 43 games and missed the final two games of the Boston Celtics’ playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets. Soon after, he was dumped to the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder along with this year’s 16h pick for Al Horford.
The Thunder flipped the Celtics’ 16th pick into two future first-round picks and tried to squeeze more out of Walker. But GM Sam Presti found no takers for Walker’s remaining $72 million owed to him over the next two years. So there was no other recourse but to buy out Walker’s contract.
“I think everything is perfect. Perfect timing. I’m really motivated,” Walker said during his introductory press conference Tuesday at the Madison Square Garden. “I’m super excited that these guys just believed in me. That’s all I need. I needed somebody to believe in me. These guys do and I appreciate that.”
Walker said there was no other option than the Knicks once he cleared the waivers.
In 2019, Walker thought he would come home. But the Knicks, who were still in disarray at that time, was shunned by Kevin Durant, who opted to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. Without a marquee superstar to team up with at New York, Walker eventually went to the Celtics as Irving’s replacement via a sign-and-trade with the Charlotte Hornets.
”It was pretty close (signing with the Knicks). But it didn’t work out,” Walker said.
Two years later, the opportunity presented itself again to come home. And this time, he didn’t think twice.
“I was on vacation. I’m just waiting patiently. Just trusting my Lord and savior to get me where I need to be,” Walker said.
The 31-year old, four-time All-Star point guard agreed to sign an $18 million, two-year deal with the Knicks after giving up $20.5 million in the buyout with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
For Walker, playing for the Knicks had always been a dream since the Bronx native rose to become one of New York’s finest point guards.
“This feeling has been like no other,” Walker said. “I’m randomly getting goosebumps. It’s an unbelievable feeling to be able to come home.”
It was an emotional homecoming for Walker, who starred in Rice High School and New York’s famous AAU club New York Gauchos, and played magical basketball at the Garden while leading UConn to the Big East title and later on the NCAA crown in 2011.
On this date in 2011:
Cardiac Kemba sinks Pitt with a classic step-back game winner. pic.twitter.com/I9rV1jrSeA
— The Undefeated (@TheUndefeated) March 10, 2019
“It was crazy, man,” Walker said, reminiscing his “Cardiac Kemba” moment in 2011. “That was just a special, special run. It was just a really dope time for me because I never beat Pittsburgh in my career. That was the first time, playing in the Garden in front of my family and friends, one of the biggest moments in the Big East Tournament. Then I hit that shot, and there was an explosion in here.”
“I love playing in this arena. It’s different because I’m from here, and I’ve played here so many different times growing up, and it’s definitely going to be different now wearing a Knicks jersey. It’s going to be better, 10 times better.”
It also hits differently than in 2019 when he was entering the peak of his career. Now two years removed from an All-NBA Team honor, Walker is coming off his worst season in the last seven years as his arthritic left knee kept on bothering him despite getting a stem cell injection. So, he is also coming home with a chip on his shoulder.
“It means everything,’’ Walker said. “It’s driving everything. Because I know what kind of player I am. I know what level I want to be at. That’s definitely an added motivation.’’
Walker still averaged 19.3 points and 4.9 assists even in a down year. Even the worst version of Walker is still an upgrade for the Knicks, who endured starting Elfrid Payton at point guard last season.
Walker is hopeful he could recapture his All-NBA form with the long rest and Knicks’ point guard depth that features him, Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, and rookie Miles McBride.
“I feel great,’’ Walker said. “My knee feels great. Honestly, I haven’t been playing as much since the regular season. I feel really good. I haven’t had this much time off in a little while, in a few years, to be honest.”
“It feels good to have this rest and time to get my knee right. I intend to come in feeling super good and continue to feel super good.”
Walker said he’s been working hard to rehabilitate his left knee. His strengthening program consists of lifting in the gym a lot, getting his lower body stronger, and reaching a level where his knee could endure an entire season.
While the $18 million, two-year deal with the Knicks is viewed around the league as a low-risk, high reward move, there’s still fear that Walker’s homecoming might not end up in a storybook ending.
Walker said he doesn’t feel any pressure, aware of the Knicks’ fans reputation for being vocal when players fail to live up to expectations.
“I’m from here. We got the best fans in the world. I know what’s up. I’m not really worried about that. Because I know what I gonna bring. And I saw what those guys brought out last year — the intensity, the passion for the game. It’s gonna be fun.”
For the second time in his career, Walker felt that people are counting him out. When Charlotte gave up on him, that fueled him to his All-NBA season in his first year in Boston.
While he tried to hide his feelings towards the Celtics for letting him go, he’s channeling that as motivation to come back stronger.
“I definitely believed Boston believed in me. But they traded me. So, you know,” Walker said. “My guys, my home team Knicks, they believed in me and I’m here now so whatever happened in the past is irrelevant at this point.”
A motivated Walker is hard to count out, especially now that he’s returning to New York, where it all began.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo