(L-R) Gregg Popovich and Kemba Walker talking before the 2019 USA Basketball Men's National Team Blue-White exhibition game on Aug. 9, 2019 in Las Vegas.
LAS VEGAS — Point guard Kemba Walker let fly a deep 3-pointer.
No matter that it came near the end of a short intrasquad scrimmage on the first day of the U.S. men’s basketball team’s Las Vegas training camp earlier this month. When the potential game-tying shot caromed off the back rim, the recent Boston Celtics signee verbalized his displeasure.
“Aaaaaaahhhh!” Walker yelled in agony.
August is typically a downtime for Walker and other NBA veterans, a period when they can work out in the comfort of their favorite gyms and prepare for the coming season.
Walker has higher expectations this summer.
At age 29, he is a finalist to make his first USA Basketball senior national team as one of 13 players left for 12 spots on the squad that will compete at the FIBA World Cup next month in China.
That journey began at the Vegas training camp Aug. 5-8, and his intensity throughout — combined with the desire of his new U.S. teammates — should go a long way should the U.S. accomplish its goal of winning a third consecutive world title.
“The enthusiasm and the intensity are really high,” said Walker, who was born in the Bronx in New York City. “Guys are here competing hard and wanting to compete. It’s August, man. It’s only August. This is a time when most of us are normally relaxing and just starting to ramp things up, but we are here and we are getting after it. I love it.”
The Team USA coaching staff understands the player and person they are getting in Walker, and the first few days of practice confirmed their beliefs about how the former NCAA champion (UConn, 2011) will make an impact.
“I’m a big fan of Kemba,” assistant coach Steve Kerr said. “He is a competitor and he is a winner. He is really hard to guard in the high screen and roll and he is a fearless shooter and scorer. I am excited to coach him, and he is also really fun to be around.”
Walker has been one of the standouts for the U.S. team so far in its preparations, scoring 14 points in the intrasquad scrimmage that closed out the training camp and then posting 11 points, eight assists and six rebounds as a starter in an exhibition win over Spain on Friday. The team now moves on to Australia for more training and exhibitions prior to the World Cup opener against the Czech Republic on Sept. 1.
Much like his coaches have an appreciation for what he brings to Team USA, Walker said he’s also enjoying the opportunity to play for coach Gregg Popovich, a five-time NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs who will also lead the U.S. into next year’s Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“We all grew up watching Pop, and then we play against him during the NBA season,” Walker said. “We all know how much of a legend he is. He is just an unbelievable coach, so for me to get an opportunity to play for him and for him to pick me to be a part of this team is a blessing.”
Walker, a three-time NBA All-Star and a 2018-19 All-NBA third-team selection, also grasps the significance Popovich is placing on his team to play for each other in China.
“On the court (bonding) is pretty easy and I think we will get that,” Walker said. “When we are out there, we are communicating and trying our best to get to know each other, and that’s the biggest thing.
“A lot of these teams that we are going to be competing against have been playing with each other for a long time, so it’s important for us to build our togetherness quickly. We have to be locked in to be successful. I think off the court is what we have to figure out. We need to spend more time with each other, communicate more and just have fun with each other. Like Pop said, ‘Just love each other,’ because it has to translate to on the court if we want to do something special.”
Following eight seasons and more than 600 games with the Charlotte Hornets, Walker moved closer to home earlier this summer when he signed a four-year, $141 million contract with the Celtics. The Team USA experience is allowing Walker and future teammates Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown a chance to play together for the first time, though they downplay that.
“We are excited to have Kemba (on the Celtics), but right now we are focused on USA Basketball, playing for our country and trying to win the gold,” Smart said. “This is a business trip for us all. We’re going to have fun and we’re going to enjoy each other, but we came down here knowing that we had to do something greater than ourselves.”
For now, Walker’s prominent role with the Celtics can wait. Walker is focused on his current team and teammates, and playing for a U.S. national team for the first time since the FIBA Americas U-18 Championship in 2008, when he was named tournament MVP.
“This is an honor and it’s something I have wanted to do for a very long time as an athlete,” Walker said. “For me to get this opportunity, words can’t even describe it. I’m happy to be here. I’m one of the older guys so I’m trying to have fun, bring energy, bring enthusiasm and show some leadership. To play for your country is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a lot of us. This is a chance to get on the big stage and showcase our talents.”