<
>

Kemba Walker ready to rebound with hometown New York Knicks

play
Kemba Walker getting 'goosebumps' after joining hometown Knicks (0:50)

Kemba Walker expresses how excited he is to join the Knicks and jokes about whether he'll be playing back-to-back games this season. (0:50)

NEW YORK -- Kemba Walker is a guy who is known for having a constant smile on his face.

But, even for him, Walker was downright giddy Tuesday morning -- and understandably so -- as he was introduced as the new starting point guard for his hometown New York Knicks here at Madison Square Garden, alongside fellow new addition Evan Fournier.

Walker's feelings came not only from getting the chance to come back home and play in the arena where he burnished his credentials as a bonafide New York City legend playing first for Rice High School and then the University of Connecticut, but also for having an opportunity to prove the knee issues that plagued him last season in Boston are behind him.

"It means everything," Walker said of the motivation to prove he can still be an elite player in the NBA. "It's driving everything. Because I know what kind of player I am.

"I know what level I want to be at. It's added motivation."

For the Knicks, the acquisition of Walker was a chance to trumpet the return of a New York City icon to Madison Square Garden. But it also presented them with a low-risk, high-reward opportunity to snag Walker on a discount after he agreed to a buyout with the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had acquired him from the Boston Celtics in a trade back in June, earlier this month.

That paved the way for Walker to sign a two-year, $18 million deal with the Knicks -- the only offer he said he needed to consider once he'd gotten the buyout with Oklahoma City out of the way.

"I think it is," Walker said, when asked if this was the perfect time for him to come back home. "Everything. Perfect timing. Really motivated. Super excited that these guys have belief in me.

"That's all I need. I just need somebody to believe in me. These guys do, and I appreciate that."

That answer -- "I just need somebody to believe in me" -- left a rather obvious question: Did Walker, who signed a four-year max contract with Boston two summers ago, only to be traded, along with a first round pick, for Al Horford back in June in the first significant move of Brad Stevens' tenure as the team's president of basketball operations, think the Celtics believed in him?

"I definitely felt like Boston believed in me," Walker said, before adding with a smile and a shrug, "but they traded me. But, yeah, that's not the case. I don't feel like they didn't believe in me."

What there is little doubt of is that New York believes in Walker. Representing all Knicks fans Tuesday was rapper Fat Joe -- a fellow Bronx native -- who was wearing a white No. 8 Walker jersey to the press conference. And, afterward, he declared Walker would return to his All-Star form with the Knicks.

"He's the real deal," Joe said. "He's certified out here.

"Kemba is like ... when they talk about NYC being the Mecca of Basketball -- he's that."

The biggest question about Walker at this point is the state of his left knee. Walker has been dealing with issues with it since the start of 2020. He started last season late after undergoing a 12-week strengthening program in the offseason and didn't play in back-to-backs last season.

When asked if that would be the case this season, Walker smiled and said, "You gotta ask him," referring to coach Tom Thibodeau, who was sitting alongside team president Leon Rose and general manager Scott Perry in the front row.

Thibodeau's response was one word -- "Playing" -- which generated a round of laughter.

Fournier also played alongside Walker last season with the Celtics, having been acquired by them at the trade deadline into the trade exception created when Gordon Hayward was dealt to the Charlotte Hornets in a sign-and-trade deal last offseason.

In order to try to do the same thing, the Celtics came to an agreement with the Knicks on another sign-and-trade deal Tuesday, sending two future seconds -- one heavily protected -- to New York to make the deal.

Fournier is coming off a strong showing at the Tokyo Olympics with the French National Team, with whom he won the silver medal, and said Thibodeau gave him a hard time about that during New York's recruiting call with him.

"Yeah, my confidence level was good," Fournier said of playing in Japan. "It's really good, actually. When I was on the phone with Leon, Thibs, Scott, the first thing Thibs told me [before the gold medal game] was as soon as I wrapped up silver, I had to come to New York so we could talk.

"That was his way of talking a little bit of trash, and unfortunately that's what happened. But I'm proud of what we accomplished for my country, and the goal is to keep shining for France and in three years we host the Olympics in 2024, so we'll see. We'll see."

The same could be said for Walker, and the Knicks, who are trying to back up their surprising breakthrough season in 2020-21 with another playoff appearance next season, just as Walker is trying to return to his old form.

And while he said he doesn't feel more pressure playing in New York -- though he joked he's already telling people he only gets four tickets per game -- he admitted it has been different knowing he's going to be playing for his hometown team.

"This feeling has been like no other. Just randomly getting goosebumps," he said. "It's an unbelievable feeling to be able to come home. As far as added pressure -- I don't think so. As long as I'm in a great environment around great people I'll be fine."