Knicks have benched Kemba Walker, but the veteran point guard remains true to himself by being a leader

When Kemba Walker signed on to be a New York Knick, he and all of his hometown fans expected it to be glamorous. The former all-star point guard wanted this stop in his hometown to be the one where he has a resurgence, reclaiming his gift and abilities that had him once as a premier NBA talent.

But that fantasy only lasted until Thanksgiving weekend before having the plug pulled.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau pulled Walker not just out of the starting lineup but out of the rotation altogether last week. The four-time All-Star has not played since Nov. 26. On Monday, at the team’s practice facility, he spoke to the media for the first time since the benching.

Walker explained his mentality. The encouragement from the bench is a conscious decision. And it doesn’t end there.

“I’m here for my teammates,” he told reporters. “I’m here to help these guys as much as possible. I could be pissed. I could be upset. But at the end of the day, there are some young guys here who look up to me. Pretty sure they wanted to see how I reacted to this situation. Anybody on my team down the line can be in the same situation. Maybe I could be a role model in that aspect.”

Walker, 31, signed a two-year, $18 million contract with the Knicks this summer after negotiating a buyout with the Thunder, who acquired him in a trade with the Celtics a month earlier. The signing was supposed to mark a joyous homecoming for the Bronx native. The Knicks needed a point guard, and Walker wanted to return to the city in which he grew up.

He is averaging 11.7 points and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 43 percent from the field and 41 percent from deep with the Knicks. Yet, Thibodeau eventually chose to pull him from the first unit for defensive reasons, the coach said. Walker’s replacement, Alec Burks, would give the Knicks’ starters more size. Walker, meanwhile, had the worst plus-minus on the team. You can find more of Thibodeau’s reasoning here.

Walker told reporters Monday that he was blindsided by the move.

“I mean, yeah,” he said. “Anybody would have been. … I don’t know if it was easy on (Thibodeau’s) end or anybody’s end. That’s not something really easy to tell anyone. You gotta do hard things in life. You just have to.”

The graceful reaction is in line with Walker’s reputation as a popular teammate, which has preceded him in all of his NBA destinations. He spent his first eight seasons in Charlotte and the last two in Boston before coming to the Knicks.

Now, for the first time in his life, he’s out of his team’s rotation.

“It was tough, obviously, because I’m a competitor,” he said. “I love to play basketball. I love to be on the court, and this is the first time it’s happened in my career pretty much on any level. But at the end of the day, I’m a pro.”

Other Knicks have backed up Walker’s sentiment.

Thibodeau called him “a pro’s pro” when asked over the weekend how Walker was handling the benching.

“He’s a great teammate,” Thibodeau said. “He’s been great in practice. So, that’s what you expect.”

What’s next for Walker remains a mystery.

Thibodeau hasn’t used him for four consecutive games, though one of those was a load management day that resulted in a victory in Atlanta. The Knicks are 0-3 since Thibodeau announced on Nov. 29 that Walker would leave the starting lineup. Yet, it doesn’t seem like he’ll return any time soon.

On Thursday, with the Bulls wrecking the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, Thibodeau, searching for any kind of spark, turned to seldom-used Kevin Knox for second-quarter minutes ahead of Walker, who never got into the game. On Saturday, the Knicks could have unloaded their bench at the end of a blowout loss to the Nuggets. Walker still sat there.

“I do have respect for him,” Thibodeau said. “He’s part of the team, and right now we have a rotation. He’s not in the rotation, but he’s working in practice. He’s doing all the things he should be doing. As I mentioned before when I made that decision, I view Kemba as a starter.”

Walker says he has “no idea” whether he’ll earn a spot in the Knicks’ rotation again.

“I think only coach knows that,” he said. “But I’m staying prepared.”

If he doesn’t, his future could be elsewhere. The Knicks guaranteed him money this year and next.

Thibodeau has resisted including Walker, who made an All-NBA team in 2019, with the second unit in part because he doesn’t want to use three small guards together. Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley are already in those lineups. Maybe if Rose took Burks’ starting role, Walker running with the bench could make more sense.

For now, it’s not something the Knicks have not tried. Thibodeau is hesitant to remove Rose from the second unit because that group has been so successful together.

So, Walker will keep working, hoping for another chance.

“Things like this just build character,” he said. “Situations like this just really show who people really are, and I am who I am. … I’m gonna smile through all situations.”

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