Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
The past several months have not been pleasant for Kemba Walker and the UConn men’s basketball team.
The Huskies were bounced out of the Big East tournament in March when St. John’s hammered them by 22 points.
After reaching the Final Four in 2009, UConn didn’t even qualify for the Big Dance in 2010.
In mid-May, head coach Jim Calhoun signed a five-year, $13 million contract extension. But that news was soon mitigated when assistant coach Pat Sellers and Director of Basketball Operations Beau Archibald resigned in the wake of the Nate Miles recruiting scandal.
And in early June, guard Darius Smith announced he would transfer.
Yet despite all the adversity, Walker, a rising junior guard from The Bronx, says he’s ready to press on and make the best of next season.
“I think at this point we all know that it’s a business,” Walker said by phone Saturday from the Chris Paul Elite Camp in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“You know, guys transferring, coaches getting fired. That’s what happens in basketball on any level, a coach can get fired. So we all love coach Sellers and coach Archibald but it’s unfortunate they can’t be with us. We’re just going to look forward and try to get better as a team.”
The Huskies lost seniors Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards, who combined to account for 40 points (59 percent of the offense) and grab 18.8 rebounds a game last season.
The Huskes failed to land one of the four elite guards who signed late — Doron Lamb (Kentucky), Brandon Knight (Kentucky), Josh Selby (Kansas) and Cory Joseph (Texas).
Still, UConn will bring in a five-man recruiting class highlighted by 6-8 forward Roscoe Smith of Oak Hill Academy and 5-11 point guard Shabazz Napier of Lawrence (Mass.) Academy.
Walker, the former Rice High star, averaged 15.7 points and 4.4 assists, but no other returning player averaged double-figures in scoring.
But Walker, who will co-captain with rising senior Donnell Beverly, believes the Huskies can still win games.
“Even though we lost Jerome and Stanley, I still feel that we can be a good, solid team,” Walker said. “All it takes is a little bit of sacrifice and just guys knowing their roles.”
As a freshman, Walker played alongside A.J. Price, now in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers.
He hopes that Napier can play a similar role this season, with Walker now the seasoned guard that Price was then.
“I think Shabazz is going to be as good as those guys [Selby, Lamb, Knight and Joseph],” Walker said. “I think he’s going to be a great fit for us.”
He added: “We’ll mix it up. The same thing as what I did my freshman year with A.J. At times I played off the ball. At times, he played off the ball. We’ll mix it up. It depends on how the game is going. If he’s making shots, I’ll probably go to the one and try to get him the ball. If I’m making shots, vice versa.”
Walker treasures the weekend camp with Paul, one of the bright young stars in the NBA.
Walker is one of six Big East guards at the camp, along with Corey Fisher (Villanova), Darius Johnson-Odom (Marquette), Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine (Syracuse) and Chris Wright (Georgetown).
“He’s been around the whole weekend,” Walker said of Paul. “He’s showing us some things, it’s fun. It’s a great place for all of us. A lot of the camps you go to, a lot of the guys are not there. And he’s here with us the whole weekend.”
Paul is working with the college and high school players at the camp on various aspects of the game, including how to work the pick-and-roll.
“The reason I started the camp is to teach kids,” Paul told ZAGSBLOG contributor Ryan Feldman at the camp. “I’m a basketball junkie so I’m a fan of all these kids anyway.
“I think we teach them the importance of practice and we teach them the importance of listening, not thinking that you know it all. That’s what happens when you’re the elite of the elite. A lot of times, you’re the best player on your high school team and you’re the best kid and and nobody can tell you anything. Here, you’re just one of many. And now you have a lot of the best coaches around the country teaching you and you can learn.”
After last season’s disappointing finish, Walker wants to use what he learned from Paul to move forward and forget about the past.
“Of course, the whole season left a bad taste in my mouth,” Walker said. “It wasn’t what we expected. It was a horrible season for us, so this year we’re going to work hard and stay together and just try to get as many wins as possible and have a better year than last year.”
Walker is especially looking forward to playing that same St. John’s team that hammered the Huskies in the Big East tournament.
Now, to add even more excitement, his former high school coach, Moe Hicks, is on staff under first-year coach Steve Lavin.
“He built a great program at Rice and it’s time for him to move on and leave his legacy and start a new one,” Walker said.
“It will be great for me to play against him. Him being on the opposite bench from me will definitely be fun.”
(Photos courtesy NBA.com and Daily News)
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.