When he was with the Celtics, in his twenties, that style worked well for him. He was a running, gunning, slashing, shooting, scoring forward that carried the load all by himself and was the face of the franchise. It was a good franchise, too — in 2002, Walker and Paul Pierce nearly carried the Celtics to the NBA Finals. Walker was taking 21 shots a night, and few were complaining.
Speaking of taking shots …
Now, Walker is trying to get another shot at playing in the NBA. He's only 33, but he's slowed dramatically since leaving Boston for good four years ago, and his style of play isn't working anymore. He's still throwing up jumpers, but they aren't going in like they did in his prime, and he's lost the ability to create his own shot effectively.
But apparently, he hasn't quite scared away the entire NBA. Sports Illustrated writer Chris Mannix, a respected NBA insider, was in Las Vegas over the weekend and happened to spot the former All-Star.
"Just bumped into Antoine Walker at the MGM," Mannix wrote on his Twitter page. "Says he is talking to four teams and plans on being in a camp on a non-guaranteed deal next week."
Cranking out a punchline here is too easy. The irony of Walker publicizing his commitment to basketball while spending his September in a casino in Vegas? It's too much. Walker already has a well-publicized gambling problem — in fact, two months ago, he was arrested on criminal charges stemming from $822,500 worth of gambling debts he had accrued at various casinos. If he wants to come back to the NBA, that's great — but he had better learn to leave his past behind.
And that applies to more than just the gambling. He also has to mature as a basketball player — Walker's not about to carry a team at 33, having the offense run every play through him. At his age, with his amount of rust, there's no way that could work.
The rust is a serious concern. Walker hasn't been seen on an NBA court since the middle of the 2007-08 season — Timberwolves exec Kevin McHale took a chance on him two years ago, and things didn't work out. It was one former Celtics star doing a favor for another, and the result was that Walker fizzled out and was out of basketball by mid-February.
His final stat line: 46 games played, with averages of 8.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game. He played 19.4 minutes a night — and that was for a bad Minnesota team. He was 31 then, and his clock was already ticking away. Hard to imagine where he could catch on now.
If Mannix's reporting is accurate, and it tends to be, there are four teams interested. But what kind of team could it be? Not a championship contender, that's for sure. The only players demanding Walker's shot volume on title hopefuls are superstars. If Walker wants to hog the ball, it'll have to be for a lightweight franchise.
But on the flip side, a young team wouldn't work either. Walker hasn't shown the kind of leadership — on or off the floor — that would make you think he can guide youngsters into becoming professional players. No one wants to see their prospects' development stunted by a veteran who takes away their shots each game and takes them to casinos on off nights.
If Walker's going to fit in, it'll have to be somewhere in between. He needs a veteran-laden but mediocre lineup — one that can make room for him but still be able to set him in his place. He should not steal the spotlight, but he could still play a significant role and hit a shot when his team needs it.
There are 30 teams out there, so it's hard to name names. But if you want a guess, here are four teams that make sense: Golden State, Sacramento, Detroit and Washington. All four teams would find room for him in their respective rotations, and none would have to sacrifice much in the way of playoff hopes or talent development. Walker would be a simple role player, nothing more.
Walker's past the point where he can still make a real contribution to a good team. Here in Boston, we have our fond memories, but it's not 2002 anymore. If anyone wants to roll the dice on Walker now, that's their prerogative. But they had better know: It's sure to be quite a gamble.
What, too soon?