NEW YORK — It didn’t have nearly the same caché as the Big East Tournament, but Kemba Walker came up big at Madison Square Garden yet again.
The former UConn star went for 18 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists — including the tiebreaking basket with 1:31 remaining – as the Charlotte Bobcats beat the Knicks, 85-83, in a preseason game at the renovated Madison Square Garden.
“It shows us that we can play because the Knicks didn’t just give us that game, we worked for that game,” Walker said, according to the AP. “So it shows us that we can go out there and compete with the best of them.”
Walker is one of three former UConn players on the Bobcats roster, along with Ben Gordon, who did not play because of a right knee issue, and Jeff Adrien, who got a DNP-Coach’s Decision. Former Syracuse standout James Southerland also got a DNP.
Former Kentucky and St. Patrick star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (hamstring) also sat out.
As for Walker, Bobcats coach Steve Clifford says he’s improved defensively and with his pick-and-roll game.
“In the preseason he’s been really good [defensively],” Clifford said. “And hopefully his assist-turnover ratio will be better and I think along with that, he’ll be able to put consistently more pressure on the defense. And he’s been working hard on both of them.”
He admits it’s been tough in Charlotte, where the Michael Jordan-owned Bobcats went 21-61 a year ago.
“Man, it’s tough, it’s always tough to lose,” he told SNY.tv before the game. “It’s hard, of course, but at the same time it’s adversity and everyone has to go through it. I guess it was my time and our time to go through it, so the saying that only the strong survive. And that’s how I’m approaching it.
There were times last year, Walker said, when he couldn’t take the losing, “But I still went out there and gave it my all.”
Still, he’s encouraged by the new season and says, “We’re expecting big things out of each other.”
He also likes having two former UConn players around.
He and Adrien played together at UConn, while both players looked up to Gordon, the former Mount Vernon star.
“It’s super cool, especially having ‘BG,’ a guy who’s been here before me,” Walker said. “A UConn guy, a guy who I kind of looked up to growing up. And Jeff who I played with at UConn, it’s great to have those two guys around.”
Adrien says he’s impressed with the leaps Walker has taken as a leader.
“He’s just become so much smarter,” Adrien told SNY.tv. “He’s just learning the game. He’s a student of the game first and a learner second. He works at it tremendously hard, one of the hardest working players we have on this team.”
Walker admits it’s “weird” that UConn is no longer in the Big East. He was shocked to learn they will play their postseason tournament in Memphis — not at Madison Square Garden.
“Oh, it’s in Memphis now, damn,” Walker said of the American Athletic Conference tournament. “Hopefully, we’ll still be playing then. Man, it’s in Memphis, that’s kind of weird. But best of luck to those guys.”
After being ineligible for the postseason in 2013 due to APR issues, Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and company can play in the postseason this year.
They have designs on an NCAA Tournament run under second-year coach Kevin Ollie.
“Oh, man, of course,” Walker said. “I know Shabazz, this is a big year for him. This is going to be a huge year for him. I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”
And Walker hopes the same can be said for him.