As of today, the Toronto Raptors look pretty well locked into the fifth-worst record in the NBA with only ten games to go in the 2010-2011 season. While lottery night could either raise or lower that standing, for now it appears safe to assume that the Raptors will be selecting just outside of the top-three on draft night. Why is that relevant a full three months before the draft? Because these next two weeks may be the last chance Raps fans have to watch possibly the most likely candidate to join the team on draft night: Kemba Walker.
Now, as recently as three weeks ago I would have said that going after Kemba Walker would have been a tremendous leap for a team that needs a sure-fire home run in this year's draft. While he's always been talented, Walker is an undersized point guard (5-foot-10) that thinks shot before pass and his shot percentages haven't exactly gone through the roof this year. To look at his frame and his numbers, Walker never struck me as a viable target for Toronto, and that thought process carried me though most of the NCAA campaign.
So what's changed over the last three weeks? Well first, a realization that the Raptors (for now) are pretty locked into the fifth-worst record and that such a placement would significantly reduce their options on draft night. Obviously they'd love to have a chance to grab Duke's Kyrie Irving, Arizona's Derrick Williams or North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, but the chances of any of them sliding out of the top three were pretty much destroyed when Jared Sullinger declared that he's sticking around at Ohio State for another year.
The other thing that's changed is that Walker is showing during March Madness, like he did at the Maui Invitational and the Big East tournament, that he's a born leader and there is no single quality that the Raptors need more right now than leadership. Despite Walker's diminutive frame, he's got the kind of all-out passion when he's on the court that is incredibly infectious, and he's someone that will try to mix it up in other areas when his shot isn't falling. All this year, he's elevated his game when the pressure was elevated, and his team has reaped the rewards of his efforts. He's the kind of player that wants the ball in his hands and he works to make the best choices with it to better his team's fortunes. Make no mistake, he's a scorer first and foremost and that skill would have to be sewn into the Raptors attack, but of the second-tier players available in the upcoming draft, he looks better poised than anyone to unify the Raptors disparate pieces and take the squad to the next level of their rebuilding process.
That's because, mostly, he fits one of the team's biggest needs. While Jose Calderon has done an admirable job as the full-time starter for the Raptors this season (he's fifth in the NBA in assists per game and third in the league in assist ratio), he can't be their long-term solution so long as DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani are on the club. He's simply too cordial and too deferential. DeRozan and Bargnani need a guard that does more to disrupt the defense so that they can both get easier shots, as neither one is particularly adept at making plays for himself and both need a guard that is willing to shoulder more of the team's offensive burden than either of them. While Walker is hardly a Steve Nash-esque playmaker, his speed and aggressiveness shifts defenses and pulls people into help scenarios, opening up other areas of the floor for his teammates. Plus, he does average 4.5 apg, which is more than Irving, Brandon Knight and Jimmer Fredette, so it isn't as though he's exactly a ball-hog on the offensive end of the floor.
Of course, while it is nice to get more shots to DeRozan and Bargnani in better spots, the real allure of drafting Walker would be knocking both of them back a peg in the Raptors scoring hierarchy. Even though both have had stretches with impressive scoring totals this season, both have struggled to consistently shoulder the burden of carrying the team's offensive load, as both players tend to be a bit more passive in their nature than a traditional top scorer would be. Having a guy like Walker, who thrives with the ball in his hands, both taking guys off of the dribble or coming off of screens, would free up DeRozan and Bargnani to work more on finishing than creating. Walker would be able to use his tremendous speed to get himself to the basket, or he can use the threat of his speed to open up some space for his killer midrange game (he's a much better shooter than most small guards are when they come into the NBA). Remember, the NBA rules favour quick guards that like to penetrate (it's so often repeated it's become a cliché), and the Raptors haven't had a guard that exploited those rules in a long time. Some will say T.J. Ford was the last best example, but even he had such a shaky jump shot that defending his penetration was made considerably easier than it would be against Walker, who is just as comfortable rising up from two or three to get his baskets. While his shooting percentages suggest otherwise, one has to remember that he has very little help on UConn's roster, which allows defenses to key in on him more while also forcing Walker to to shoulder more of the scoring load than he should have to. At the NBA level, he'll have better teammates to play off of, which should help his percentages better reflect his ability. Keep in mind, UConn was unranked at the beginning of this year, and that should go a long way to towards illustrating how pedestrian Walker's supporting cast was this season.
Of course, for many the conversation with regards to Walker will begin and end with his undersized frame. It's worth noting that currently, five teams employ sub-six-foot guards (Lawson, Lowry, D.J. Augustin, Darren Collison, Jameer Nelson), while Aaron Brooks won last year's Most Improved Player award as a starter for Houston. Most of these players have succeeded by maximizing their relative strengths, usually speed and scoring, to help offset the fact that they lose two-to-four inches against most NBA matchups. Yes, a smaller stature means that Walker - and the team that drafts him - will need to make adjustments that other team's won't have to make, but it can be done, it has been done and plenty more will do it again. Heck, Damon Stoudamire won the Rookie of the Year award by leading the inaugural Raptors attack at 5-foot-10 with 19.0 ppg and 9.3 apg averages, so not only is there precedent for small players to succeed but there is even precedent in the Raptors' own history.
The fact is, so long as Irving, Williams and Barnes are off the board, it's difficult to make a compelling case for another player than Walker. Perry Jones is a soft power forward that plays like a small forward (sound familiar?), Enes Kanter hasn't played competitively in a year, Jan Vesely is severely under-skilled and Jonas Valanciunas is still more of a hustle guy than a go-to player. Only Brandon Knight, Kentucky's rapidly-improving combo guard, seems worth discussing as a possible challenger at this point to Walker, but he's even less of a passer than Kemba is. Both will probably see a lot of each other on the workout circuit, and that's probably where one will ultimately separate himself from the other. Truth be told, though, it may not so much be a matter of one being better than the other as one being better suited to a team's needs than the other. With so little knock-out talent in this draft, team needs will play the role of stalemate-breaker in more than one war room, and for the Raptors that may put Walker at the top of their list.
Now, it's worth circling back to how this whole notion got started. No one is saying that out of the entire class of players that are going to enter the draft, Kemba Walker is the best option for the Toronto Raptors going forward. If they can move up into the top-three (either with luck on lottery night or through a trade), then they'll happily snatch-up Irving, Williams or Barnes. However, should the Raptors be forced to pick in the range that they are facing today (fifth or lower), then it will be hard to see how another player knocks Walker out Toronto's sights between now and the end of June. So tune in to watch him while you still can, because the next time you see him he may be wearing Raptors red on opening night.