MINNEAPOLIS He stood, feet planted and not a defender within arm's length. Just a flick of the wrist, and it was the perfect 3. The look on his face was enough to know it was good.
Kemba Walker was alone, isolated. No one mattered on the floor but him. He could have been on any court, in any uniform, and for those brief seconds, it was as if nothing had changed.
But the ball swished through the net. The announcer muttered "Walker," and the rookie point guard turned around and kept on playing.
His team was down, 89-75, with just 6:31 left in what would be its 16th consecutive loss. For all the beauty in that 3-point shot, for all the potential and talent it represented in one player, Walker was still facing the harsh reality of where he is today, a promising rookie on the NBA's worst team.
Wednesday's 102-90 Timberwolves win over the Bobcats featured two point guards coming off championship seasons: Walker, who won an NCAA championship at the University of Connecticut last April, and J.J. Barea, who came off Dallas's bench during its NBA title run last June. For both players, the adjustment to new, less successful teams has often been trying, but each faces his own unique set of obstacles.
Walker was the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, the third point guard selected. In his three seasons at UConn, he had a record of 81-30. He was accustomed to winning, and before joining the Bobcats, Walker's most recent basketball memory was a team-high 16-point night in the Huskies' 53-41 championship win over Butler.
The fate of any talented college player is often to breathe life into a struggling franchise. That's almost a foregone conclusion with the structure of the NBA draft, but Walker's outcome now looks even worse. The Bobcats were mediocre last season, with a 34-48 record. This year, they're double-digit wins away from mediocrity, just 3-26.
Barea, too, has moved away from the culture of winning he grew accustomed to in Dallas. He played the first five years of his career with the Mavericks, capping it all with a championship win over Miami last June. So for him, the move to an up-and-coming team was less an inevitability and more a choice, the best move to make in the middle of a solid career. He has the NBA experience that Walker lacks, but the 27-year-old point guard doesn't have his entire career ahead of him. What was forced for Walker was a shrewd business decision for Barea, and the two have found themselves in different situations this season.
"It's been hard," Barea said of his season so far. "It's totally different. I'm not going to lie, it's completely different than what I went through last year."
But he knows the league. He knows what's expected of him and the limits of his game. No one is counting on Barea to turn a franchise around, and the hopes and expectations of coaches and teammates weigh less heavily on his back. Barea said that for him, this year is a transition. Transitions are often difficult by nature.
Walker's season is a beginning. Those don't have to be so hard, but because of a few simple moves a draft lottery, the fleeting impression he made on a coach and a general manager his is.
But with beginnings come clean slates. There are fewer expectations, fewer preconceived notions of what should be happening. It's still basketball, but Walker said that this season feels nothing like the past.
"It's different," Walker said. "I had a group of young guys, and I was one of the older guys. Now I'm back to being one of the young guys. It's pretty different."
He doesn't have to face last year's teammates wearing last year's uniforms. He doesn't have a bulky championship ring locked up at home, each tiny, glinting diamond a reminder of how much last year's work paid off. Instead, he has new opponents to study, new roles to negotiate, a team to lead. For Walker, to play in the NBA so far has been to lose, but he's managing to find the positive.
"Nobody likes to lose, but at the same time, it's alright," Walker said. "It's a learning process. Hopefully what I can do individually is get better. As a team, we're getting better. We're losing, but we're playing really well. You can ask for much more. The wins will come."
Kevin Love, who entered the league in a similar situation to Walker, echoed the rookie's sentiments. When asked what advice he'd give Walker, Love said that he'd stress how young he is, that there will be brighter days. As much as those past wins shaped Walker as a player, as much as they padded his resume and built ever higher standards, they can be a burden, and to succeed in the NBA, the rookie point guard needs to put the past out of his mind.
"He just needs to keep a level head, know that there's better days ahead of him, and just live in the present," Love said. "Put everything behind you and just continue to work on your game."
Walker has the chance to be the face of a franchise going forward. He led the Bobcats with 21 points on Wednesday night, and his numbers have been improving all season. Charlotte coach Paul Silas said that Walker is learning the position, how to lead his team and adjust to the pace of the NBA, much faster than he'd expected. The coach said that in just a year, he expects Walker to be unbelievable.
"He's got it," Silas said. "He's got it all."
That's how Walker stomachs it, the seemingly endless string of losses. He knows what he means to his team. He's confident in the hope that his coach places in him, and his championship past can only bolster his belief that he can live up to those expectations.
Barea, though, doesn't have that time frame. No one asks about where he'll be in three years, or even in 10. He will most likely still be in the league, doing his job, perhaps even winning. But there might always be that nagging thought in the back of his mind, the voice he'll try to silence that says over and over that his best NBA memories are behind him. There's no way to know if it's true, just as there's no way to prove that Walker won't hurt himself or flame out. But despite the uncertainty of both men's careers, despite the challenges each faces to adjust to a losing or mediocre team, they have something in common. They've felt the emotion of a championship, and they'll do anything to get that rush again.
"No question I want to win," Barea said. "I want to win every night. I know what this team can do, so we've just got to put it all together and get it all out there every night."
On Wednesday, Minnesota got the win that both teams coveted. Barea had a solid night, with 12 points and eight assists, not the team-leading numbers Walker posted, but enough to help his team break a four-game losing skid. For now, neither player is enough to guarantee a win, much less a championship. But each knows what it takes, and on nights when the losses sting their worst, the memories of winning it all are the best kind of motivation.
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