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UConn in the NBA: Kemba Walker is back

The Celtics star is on the court and reporting a ‘pain-free’ knee.

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NBA: New York Knicks at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

During this incredibly short NBA offseason, the most-watched knee around the league belonged to former UConn men’s basketball star Kemba Walker. After a semi-successful NBA bubble marked by lingering knee pain, Walker underwent a stem cell injection in early October and had his 2020-2021 season debut delayed by a 12-week strengthening rehab period.

30-year-olds with bad knees don’t have a long shelf life in the NBA, especially those who are reliant on quick cuts and plants. Many Celtics fans were wondering if this was the beginning of the end for Walker, or if it’s just the byproduct of being brought back too soon for the bubble coupled with a truncated offseason.

Kemba made his return Sunday night vs. the New York Knicks, and the early signs are encouraging. On a strict 20-minute limit, he scored nine points on 3-of-13 shooting. He added three rebounds, four assists, and three steals but turned the ball over five times and was 1 for 8 from three. Not a single sane person will fault Walker for the rusty shooting or the turnovers in this debut. More importantly, his movement appeared unimpeded and his cuts as sharp as ever.

Afterward, Kemba told reporters: “I felt really comfortable making my moves. I was pain-free, which I haven’t been for a very long time.”

“It feels weird actually not having pain if that makes sense. It’s kind of a weird feeling. I’ve been hurt for a very long time, so I was really just happy to get out there, just super excited. It was fun. I can’t wait to get back out there.”

In Kemba’s absence, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have shouldered the scoring load, and rookie Payton Pritchard has proven to be a reliable bench threat. This all adds up to less scoring burden for Walker. The poor guy spent his prime years burning mileage as the only person on the Charlotte Hornets besides Michael Jordan that could put the ball in the cup. Now as he begins the backend of his NBA career, he can slide seamlessly into a balanced team and pick his spots efficiently. If everything goes right, the Celtics could have a healthy and in-form Kemba Walker right as the playoff race is heating up.

Here’s how the rest of the UConn alumni are doing in the NBA:

Rudy Gay, San Antonio Spurs

On Thursday, Rudy Gay passed James Worthy for 105th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. The 34-year old continues to produce at a high level, averaging 10.7 points and 5.4 rebounds in 22 minutes per game. It’s early, but the Spurs sit 7-6 in the West and appear ready to fight for a playoff birth.

Shabazz Napier, free agent

Full bias disclosure, but its absurd that Shabazz has yet to latch on to a roster. What kind of world are we living in that Tomas Satoransky, Raul Neto, Dani Rojas, DJ Augustin, and freaking Malachi Flynn are on NBA rosters, but Shabazz isn’t? Fun fact: One of those names in there is fictional. I bet you don’t even know which one.

Jeremy Lamb, Indiana Pacers

The lanky Robin to Kemba’s Batman in 2011 tore his ACL in his left knee back in February. Lamb practiced fully last week and is ‘very close’ to his return. Prior to his injury, he averaged 12.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Unfortunately, while the Pacers dumped Victor Oladipo as part of the James Harden trade, they brought in talented wing Caris Lavert to fill the scoring void.

Napier averaged career highs across the board in 20 games in 10 starts for the Wizards last year, his third team of the season. The hope is that with rosters thinning out all over the league, the Hungry Husky is picked up for the winter doldrums.

Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers

Drummond continues to pile up fantasy basketball numbers, averaging roughly 19 points and a league-leading 16 rebounds per game for the 6-7 Cavaliers. However, the Cavs snuck into the James Harden fracas and stole promising young center Jarrett Allen from the Nets. The 22-year old 6’11 rim protector is regarded as the Cavs’ center of the future, putting Drummond’s future with the team in doubt. Drummond is in the final year of his contract that’s paying him $28.8 million this season.

He’s been a class act about the roster shakeup, however. When the Akron Beacon Journal asked if he was miffed by the trade, he had the following to say:

“Oh, no. For me, I play the same way each and every night. The trade, it is what it is. There’s nothing I can do about that. If I do get traded, I don’t control that either. I’m just here to play basketball with whatever jersey I have on. So that’s all I can focus on right now.”

For the record, this is what kind of person Andre Drummond is — a sheer delight.

Drummond is now a prime contender to be moved at the NBA deadline this March and it could happen a couple of ways. He’s only 27, so a young team with money can scoop him up. A veteran team pushing its chips all-in could use him for the stretch run as well, as he plays his way into a new contract next summer. Perhaps a top team in the East that just so happens to have the largest TRADE EXCEPTION in the league? A historic franchise led by a Husky alum that also just so happens to have a former teammate of his in the post?? Just spitballing here, but Danny Ainge, if you’re listening, I’m tired of watching the Kraut Klanger Daniel Theis hoist threes!

The NBA’s G-League season tips off in February down in Walt Disney, Orlando for an 18-team bubble. These Huskies are expected to be part of the action in Orlando:

Amida Brimah

The puzzling decision to plow through a pandemic means rosters are thinned out across the league. That means opportunities for those further down the bench or in the G-League. Amida Brimah, on a two-way contract with the Indiana Pacers by way of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, could be one such benefactor. The Pacers look like real threats in the East, but should Myles Turner or Domatas Sabonis go down with an injury, Brimah may be called up to fight (checks notes) Goga Bitadze for minutes as the backup. You know what Brimah brings: energy, shot-blocking, and rim protection. Those are premiums that will ensure Amida is always on the cusp of a roster breakthrough.

Jalen Adams

Joining Brimah in the bubble will be Jalen Adams. But first, an important note: Check out what pops up on your Twitter feed when you search ‘ Jalen Adams.’ So, let us pause to observe some Jim Boeheim ownage:

What a nice mid-article palette cleanser!

Anywho, after averaging 20 points per game and shooting 37% from downtown for Champagne Basket in France, Adams was named to the Erie Bayhawks’ 2020-2021 roster. That’s the New Orleans Pelicans affiliate where Adams averaged 19 points and 4.7 assists per game during the 2019-20 season. In the same light as Brimah, Adams could be one Lonzo Ball injury away from getting called up to toss lobs to Zion Williamson.

Christian Vital

The vibes were good on UConn Twitter to end 2020 when news broke that the Memphis Grizzlies signed Vital to the team’s G-League affiliate, the Hustle. But he’s not on the Hustle roster and there’s been no press release that he was waived. Vital signed in August with BC Goettinge of Germany back in August, but his contract was terminated a month later.