Letters From Camp: Life after Kemba

June, 29, 2011
6/29/11
12:16
PM ET
Letters From Camp are my dispatches from this weekend's Nike Skills Camps in Chicago. Previously: On Thomas Robinson, Ashton Gibbs, Jeffery Taylor and a bullet-style notebook roundup.

CHICAGO -- Being a national champion has its perks. Immunity from insult is chief among them.

Resting against a wall after an impressive Saturday session at the Amar'e Stoudamire Skills Academy in Chicago, Connecticut forward Alex Oriakhi explained this matter in simple terms.

"You know, guys always throw a little friendly trash talk out there at these things," Oriakhi said. "[Syracuse guard] Scoop Jardine and [Villanova guard] Maalik Wayns were going at each other a little bit this week, talking a lot about whose team was better and stuff like that.

"No one really said anything to us, though. What are you going to say? We won the whole thing."

Yes, Oriakhi, like teammate and fellow camp participant Shabazz Napier, finds himself in the strange basketball nirvana that few things in the sport can offer. Who cares if that national title came in a year most derided for its lack of "great" teams? Who cares that Connecticut won its title in a game most college hoops fans would rather forget? (The ugliness of Butler's offensive effort haunts us all. Except, you know, UConn fans.) Who cares that star Kemba Walker -- the biggest reason the Huskies barnstormed through Maui in November, won the Big East tournament in March, notched a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and eventually took the whole damn thing -- will be suiting up for the Charlotte Bobcats when (or if) the NBA returns from its labor negotiations this winter?

From now until at least the next "One Shining Moment," the Huskies are national champions. They won the whole thing. What are you going to say?

Buffers against summer camp trash talk don't get more comprehensive than that. But as Oriakhi and Napier competed against a bevy of college hoops' most talented guards and forwards in Chicago last week, they also found themselves focusing on the future, a future that doesn't include the do-everything uber-guard from the Bronx.

It's L.A.K.: Life After Kemba. This is where things get tricky.

"Our biggest problem coming up this year is learning how to play without him," said Napier, a soon-to-be sophomore.

Napier's is not an overstatement. Few players in the nation last season were more important to their teams than Walker was to Connecticut. The 6-foot-1 guard did a bit of everything. He scored (23.5 ppg), set up teammates for open looks (4.5 apg) and was the second-leading rebounder (5.4 rpg) on a team that thrived on its ability to outrebound opponents, especially on the offensive end of the floor. Walker played 92.4 percent of available minutes. Despite his reputation as a volume scorer, he was efficient, too; his offensive rating of 116.7 ranked fourth in the nation among players whose usage rate exceeded 28 percent of his team's possessions. Walker drew fouls at a copious rate.

He was so good, UConn coach Jim Calhoun could play him in ways most guards can't handle. As a point guard, Walker could initiate the offense, draw defenders and find shots for teammates -- Jeremy Lamb, Napier and Oriakhi especially -- that gradually and consistently improved from November to March. As a shooting guard, Walker could run off screens and free himself for open looks like a miniature Richard Hamilton.

"Shabazz made a point to me about Kemba one time," Oriakhi said. "He said no one stops Kemba Walker. The only person who can stop Kemba is Kemba. That's pretty much what happened all year."

Perhaps most importantly, the veteran Walker was the heart and soul of a team that included an unheralded batch of two freshmen and two sophomores in its starting lineup for the entire season. He put the team on his back, made every big shot, kept the Huskies in games when the rest of the lineup looked shellshocked, confused or just plain tired.

How do you replace that? Can you? And if you can't, what does that mean for the Huskies in 2011-12?

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
Bob Donnan/US PresswireShabazz Napier came up big during UConn's 11-0 postseason run.
For Napier, the answer's actually kind of simple: Do what Kemba did.

"I won't say I can replicate what he did," Napier said. "But one thing he taught me and the rest of our team is the value of hard work. You go out there and give it your all no matter what. Every practice we had, he practiced like he was a guy that was trying to make the team. He's the star of our team, but you looked over at him and he was always pressing himself, challenging himself. It was like he was a walk-on."

That work ethic was one of the reasons Walker morphed from 2010's promising but turnover-prone point guard to 2011's biggest wire-to-wire star. Another lesson? Patience. With its mix of obvious talent, so-so efficiency and frustrating mistakes, Napier's freshman season bore an uncanny statistical resemblance to Walker's sophomore year. Now, without Walker at his side, Napier will be stepping into the Huskies backcourt as its full-time ballhandler and facilitator, and he'll assume all of the responsibilities that come with it.

"A lot is going to be put on my shoulders this season," Napier said. "I'm the floor general now. Last year I learned to work hard, to be patient, to listen to the coaches at all times -- that's stuff Kemba did. Now I just have to put it all on the floor and make the most of the opportunity."

"People forget that Shabazz was just a freshman," Oriakhi said. "He had a chance to work with one of the best guards in the country every day for an entire season. He's still learning not to be so turnover prone, to not try to make the big play all the time, and I've seen him get better. I think he's going to be one of the best point guards in the country next year."

Of course, Napier doesn't need to make a Kemba-esque leap; the 2011-12 Huskies are sure to be a more balanced offensive team. Freshman swingman Jeremy Lamb became Walker's best second option during the national title run, and his combination of shooting touch, length and athleticism -- alongside a preternaturally refined game -- emerged at the best possible time, giving Calhoun a deadly weapon to use alongside Walker.

Lamb is in line for a breakout season, as is Oriakhi, the bruising power forward whose sheer size made him one of the best offensive rebounders in the country last season. Despite Walker's brilliance, there were plenty of available misses for UConn in 2011, and Oriakhi frequently retrieved them, earning his team second-chances opportunities or new possessions on 14.5 percent of available possessions. In all, the Connecticut was the seventh-best offensive rebounding team in the nation last season.

Meanwhile, Calhoun -- who this time last year was besieged by both an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations and concern that the best of his recruiting days were behind him -- has quietly reloaded his talent in vintage UConn style. This fall, the Huskies will welcome two players ranked in the ESPNU 100, including point guard Ryan Boatright, a lightning-quick ballhandler from Illinois and DeAndre Daniels, a 6-foot-7 small forward from California who our recruiting guys call "one of the elite scorers in the country." Both players are likely to receive big minutes in a variety of roles this season.

Still, in the end, there's no escaping the fact that the Huskies can't replace Walker. Or, more to the point, they can't replace him with any one player.

So what can they do? Take the lessons learned from Walker's brilliant 2011 season and spread them evenly through a more balanced, experienced and -- arguably -- more talented team. Walker isn't in Storrs anymore. But he's not exactly gone, either.

And if finding renewed motivation after ultimate success is part of the Walker curriculum, well, the Huskies seem to have soaked up the lesson.

"We're not going to be a team that just sits around and wonders what we're going to do now that Kemba left," Napier said. "We've got a lot more to prove."

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