Bill Walker has heard it said about him before. He's seen it written about him as scouts and reporters try to analyze his potential. Is he a legitimate NBA talent or is he just the ultimate mooch, they type who only looks good because he hangs out with good-looking people.
Walker grew up with O.J. Mayo in Huntington, West Virginia and they played high school basketball together at North College Hill in Ohio (I know, it's crazy how no one seems to go to their local high schools anymore) when Mayo was the high school Player of the Year. He then attended Kansas State with Michael Beasley, who was among the nominees for college Player of the Year.
"I don't think I rode anybody's coat tails," Walker said.
Mayo actually initially had verbally committed to K-State along with Walker, but pulled out when Bob Huggins left for the West Virginia (coincidentally) job. Mayo went to USC, who had also recruited Walker, but Walker decided to stay with Kansas State.
The two stay in touch regularly and work out together during the offseason. Walker marveled at Mayo's limitless ability when he recalled one workout they had together.
"I swear to God he probably missed two or three shots the whole time, in an hour and a half," he said. "Nets, nets, nets . . . He's just got a stroke."
Mayo dismissed the coat tails suggestion: "Nah, he just played with other talented players . . . He's always been a highly-talented player, since high school."
"He's always had NBA game," Mayo also said. "It was a matter of time and whether he'd get the opportunity to show it and get the opportunity to play. Now he's doing well and it's no surprise to me."
It was, initially, to the Knicks coaching staff, who had no idea what they were getting in Walker, who came as part of the Nate Robinson trade with the Celtics. Being from West Virginia, himself, Mike D'Antoni knew of Walker, just like he knew of Mayo and also Patrick Patterson, the 6-8 power forward from Huntington, WVa. who right now is at Kentucky.
"I just kept hearing three of the best players in the country are all from Huntington, W. Va., which got my attention for sure," D'Antoni said.
Walker then got D'Antoni's attention with his explosiveness, his ability to shoot the ball and willingness to compete on defense. And statistically, while Walker has had a few impressive scoring games (back-to-back 20-plus points against Cleveland and Detroit), what stands out most to D'Antoni is Walker's plus-minus. He is the only Knick player in the black (plus-6 in nine games as a Knick).
More importantly, though he had just one point in Wednesday's 97-87 loss to the Spurs, Walker was a team-high plus-11 in 20:56. That speaks volumes to a coach.
"I think that's attributed to him knowing how to play," D'Antoni said. "He guards well, he doesn't force things and he has a good feel for the game."
Where he fits best in the offense obviously still needs to be figured out. He certainly has the ability to run the floor, fill lanes in the break and, with his leaping ability, finish strong. But the offensive side will come with time and work on his game. Intangibles appear to be already there.
"I like the part where every time he's on the floor, the team's a positive," D'Antoni said. "I think that's huge."
A key is the fact that Walker's number for next season isn't huge. There is a team option for $850,000, an extremely workable number for the Knicks salary cap plans.
He's hardly a finished product. After three knee injuries through high school, college and just before the 2008 draft, Walker has some catching up to do, especially with his body. It may be OK at 22 years old to play with a little extra flab, but the older he gets, the more that will slow him down. The Knicks want to see him commit to an offseason of serious conditioning that involves a more disciplined diet.
"I told him a good summer of work and really dedicating his life to what he needs to get out of it, I think he can be a player in the league, definitely," D'Antoni said.
Walker called it "a very big summer" with the goal to "just come back in the best possible shape I can get in and be ready to turn it up another level."
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* - Eddy Curry put in a very limited amount of work at the morning shoot-around here in Memphis and remains questionable for the game.
* - I asked pending restricted free agent Rudy Gay if the Knicks don't sign LeBron James, would he be interested in coming to the Knicks to be a LeBron Stopper? Gay chuckled. "LeBron Stopper? Is there a LeBron Stopper? Maybe a Container."
* - The Grizzlies are coming off a 20-point blowout win over the Celtics in Boston. They recently ended an eight game home losing streak with a win over the Nets, but while the Grizz are doing a lot better in the standings (they are 3 1/2 games out of a playoff spot), the people of Memphis are just not that into them. The Grizzlies are 29th in average attendance (13,309), ahead of only the Nets (13,131) and 28th in capacity percentage (73.4). Things are so bad here, it prompted owner Michael Heisley to say he can't promise he will re-sign Gay.
"People say are you going to pay Rudy Gay? My answer to them is simply: Are you going to come to the games?" Heisley told the Memphis Commercial Appeal recently. "If I can't get people to come to the games, I can't pay anybody."