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UConn in the NBA: Kemba Walker Breaking Out

Kemba Walker has stepped up for the Charlotte Hornets since Al Jefferson suffered a groin injury. How have other UConn alumni performed in the professional ranks recently?

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Kemba Walker: It wouldn't be right to start this article with someone other than Kemba, who has been on an absolute tear since teammate and All-NBA center Al Jefferson went down with a groin injury on December 30th. In the Charlotte Hornets' last four games, Walker scored 30 or more points in three of those matches, and dropped 29 in the other, leading the Hornets to a four-game winning streak that is likely to continue Saturday against the New York Knicks. It's been an up-and-down season for Walker, and a mostly-down season for the Hornets, but despite their 14-24 record, they're still only two games out of a playoff spot. It's always good to play in the Eastern Conference.

Of course, this means that the Hornets were a quite bad 10-24 before this winning streak, and a lot of the recent turnaround has to do with Kemba's play. He hit a game-winner against a strong Pelicans team that looked quite similar to many of the buzzer-beaters he became famous for while in Storrs. That shot, plus a few others he hit this year, prompted this article from SB Nation's Tom Ziller, one of the best professional hoops writers around. Kemba's had plenty of successes and struggles so far as a professional athlete, many of which weren't covered heavily due to his team, but many around the league are finally taking notice of his play, both good and bad.

(Editors Note: Today, Walker just finished a 28 point, 7 rebound performance against a hapless New York Knicks team. His +/- was +36; Kemba shot 8-13 from the field (4-7 from three) and 8-9 from the free throw line.)

Charlie Villanueva: Nine and a half seasons into his NBA career, Charlie Villanueva has never once made the playoffs. It's not terribly surprising given the teams he's played for, but that will change this season-- as long as the Dallas Mavericks decide to keep their twelfth man on the roster for the rest of the season. The good news is that Villanueva, albeit in a limited role, has given his team a few reasons to hang onto him. His increased focus on three-point shooting leaves him as a quality stretch-four on the bench, and his offensive rebounding is as good as it's been since the early years of his career. There are a lot of reasons why he's not going to be more than a back-of-bench option, though; his defense is still severely limited, and despite the fact that a lot more of his shots are going in now, he's still a bit of a black hole with the basketball. That said, it appears that his role won't be touched unless the Mavericks make a personnel change.

AJ Price: A.J. Price was just waived by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday, ending his second stint with the team this season. He, like seemingly every other player this year, was finding little success in Cleveland, a far cry from his play earlier in the year with the Indiana Pacers. There, Price saw more minutes as the second-string point guard, and was knocking down his shots at a fairly efficient rate. However, Indiana only saw him as a short-term injury replacement, and we was let go after ten games. Price will probably not find a consistent role with a team this season, but he has played well over the last three seasons, and any team looking for a quick replacement point guard will be considering him as an option.

Shabazz Napier: Napier had a rocky start to his rookie season, but turned his game around a bit since, with his shooting percentages roughly reminiscent of his marks at UConn. He's been down and back from the NBA's Development League twice already this season, primarily because his passing and ball control abilities aren't good enough to give him significant minutes at the point guard position for a team competing for a playoff spot. While Napier does a lot of things well, his gigantic turnover rate is enough for Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra to keep him off the floor until some improvement is seen there.

Jeremy Lamb: For the second straight year, Lamb has improved over his previous season, and he's doing so at a time when the Oklahoma City Thunder absolutely needed it. After undergoing stretches without both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder gave Lamb his first NBA start earlier this year, and he's had seven more since. He's looked a lot more active and engaged on defense this season, and his offensive game appears to be more refined, even if his shooting percentages have taken a slight step back.

Ben Gordon: After years of ambivalence, mediocrity, and general apathy, Ben Gordon has finally recovered from his self-imposed maladies to (re-)become a consistent role player off the bench, this time for the Orlando Magic. He's still a quite limited player, but he's shooting the ball as well as he ever has, so I'm sure the Magic are happy with his ability to keep a young team in games with his sharp shooting. No, he's not going to be a game-changer, but a focused Ben Gordon does still have things to offer.

Rudy Gay: It took him a while to get to this point, but Rudy Gay is playing the best basketball of his career, and the Sacramento Kings are all the better for it. Finally the consistent three-point threat everyone always wanted him to be, Gay's one of only a handful of players to average 20 points per game this year. The Kings aren't a talented, deep, or well-rounded team, but between Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, and Darren Collison, they're staying a lot more competitive than many expected.

Andre Drummond: It's semi-remarkable how much better Andre Drummond has played since the Detroit Pistons released Josh Smith. While still the game's best offensive rebounder, and still incredibly efficient on offense, Drummond didn't look like the same player he was last year-- namely, one of the NBA's brightest young stars. Drummond is the key to Detroit's defensive success, and that's been the biggest reason for their turnaround. Plus the fact that Drummond's averaging 17.5 rebounds per game in the month of January.

Caron Butler: On the other side of the Detroit locker room sits Caron Butler, who's having perhaps his worst season as a professional since entering the NBA. Butler's had a long career, and since he turns 35 in March, no one could blame him if he is on his last legs. Though one of the key bench players for the Pistons, Butler has been a disappointment, and just doesn't appear to be the player he once was. There's a good possibility his three-point shooting improves as the year goes on, but we'll have to see if that alone is enough to pick up his overall game.

Jeff Adrien: Jeff Adrien's done nothing but produce results off the bench as an NBA player, which made it all the more disappointing to see him get released by the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday. Adrien's rebounding percentages are some of the best in the NBA, and he's a very effective defender despite often being forced to match up against taller power forwards. Adrien very clearly has a place in the NBA, and I imagine he'll soon be picked up by another team that needs frontcourt help.