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Top free agent everyone seems to think they can poach, Kemba Walker, focused on Hornets playoff push

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DETROIT – Kemba Walker got up from his seat, headed toward pregame warmups then returned to his locker apparently because he forgot something. Then, he again headed toward the door and again returned before finally exiting the locker room.

Is Walker in or out?

That’ll be the big question for him and the Hornets this summer. Walker is approaching his first free agency. If he makes an All-NBA team this season, he’ll qualify for a super-max contract that projects to be worth $221 million over five years.

In the meantime, Charlotte has won three straight – including yesterday’s big victory over the Pistons – to remain in the playoff race. Walker insists he’s focused on finishing this season strong, not setting up his next contract.

“There’s no way I could play basketball thinking about those kind of things,” Walker said. “You know what I mean? Yeah, I just can’t. I just can’t go on the court thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get 30 because I need to.’ I just can’t think about those kind of things. I mean, I see it, hear about it. But it’s nothing that comes to my attention too much.”

The noise will grow only louder as July nears. Walker feels more attainable than most star free agents.

Kevin Durant could leave the Warriors, but most view him as ticketed for the Knicks. If Kawhi Leonard leaves the Raptors, he’s widely expected to join the Clippers. Kyrie Irving is most commonly linked to the Celtics and Knicks – not a wide-open field. Klay Thompson can say only so many times how badly he wants to stay with the Warriors.

But rumors are already swirling about Walker leaving Charlotte. No clear destinations have emerged, though the Mavericks are reportedly interested. That opens the door for many fan bases to view landing Walker as realistic.

Don’t rule out the Hornets, either.

“This is the team that believed in me from day one,” Walker said. “So, of course. They’re always going to be on top of the list.”

If there’s any bitterness Charlotte must overcome, a $221 million super-max contract could go a long way. Sans super-max, Walker’s max projects to be $190 million over four years if he re-signs or $141 million over four years if he leaves.

But Walker must make an All-NBA team even to be eligible for the designated-veteran-player contract. That’s hardly a given.

James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving seem highly likely to take four of the six All-NBA guard spots. That leaves two spots up for grabs with Walker, Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson and Jrue Holiday the main candidates.

Walker has fallen off after a hot start to the season, but he remains highly effective on a team built around him.

Walker has been Charlotte’s lone star for years. The Hornets are usually solid when plays and awful when he sits. Walker – not owner Michael Jordan – was the face of the franchise as Charlotte hosted All-Star Weekend.

“As he go, we go,” Jeremy Lamb said.

Yet, the Hornets haven’t gotten far with Walker. They’ve made the playoffs only twice and have never won a series with Walker. If he re-signs, Charlotte – which has never paid the luxury tax – will face major payroll concerns. Especially if Walker gets the super-max.

It’s far from a given the Hornets would or should pay Walker that much, even if he qualifies. He’ll turn 29 next month, and short guards can decline quickly.

On the other hand, Charlotte also projects to be taxed out even if Walker leaves. If the Hornets are stuck in a dismal situation regardless, maybe they’d be better off with the franchise icon who can at least keep them competitive.

Walker has certainly done that this season. Whatever speculation occurs about his future, he set a tone of steadiness.

“I think the biggest thing that Kemba tries to establish, obviously as the leader of our team, is that this is the team that he’s on,” Marvin Williams said. “This is the only thing that he’s focusing on. And as a teammate, it does give you a good feeling knowing that he is all-in, he’s not thinking about this summer.”

Walker appears to be enjoying the playoff race, especially considering the Hornets were three games and two teams out of playoff position with five games remaining. Now, they’re only one game back with two games left.

“It’s crazy that we’re in this situation,” Walker said. It’s been such an up-and-down year. For us to be in this situation, it’s fun, man. I’m really enjoying it. I’m happy to still be playing for something.”

This summer, other teams will offer Walker a clearer opportunity to play for something. They’ll try to convince Walker he deserves his meaningful games to come in May and June, not April. They’ll sell deeper playoff runs and stronger supporting casts.

And maybe Walker will choose one of those situations. But he also said just over a year ago he’d be “devastated” if Charlotte traded him. He has laid roots there and grown accustomed to playing for the Hornets.

Asked about Detroit keying on him yesterday, Walker shrugged.

“That’s every night for me,” Walker. “I know I’m the guy that every team is trying to stop.”

Soon, he’ll be the guy many teams are trying to get.

The time Kendall Gill stayed out all night then led Hornets to early-afternoon win (video)

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In the great history of NBA party-then-play stories, 15-year-pro Kendall Gill has a new tale from his rookie year with the Hornets in 1991.

Gill on Off The Dribble:

We pulled into D.C. My cousin took me out. I was out until 6 in the morning. He brings me back to the hotel. My coach, Gene Littles, is sitting in the lobby. And as I walked in the door, he’s like, “What the hell are you doing out here, rook? Don’t you know we’ve got a game at 12 o’clock in the afternoon?” Well, turns out, I go and I score 28 points that day, the high for my rookie season. I scored 28 points. He comes to me after the game and says, “You can go out and hang out any time you want to until 6 in the morning – if you play like that.”

A couple details are off. Gill scored 24 points to lead Charlotte over the Washington Bullets on March 31, 1991. But that wasn’t his season high. He scored 28 a few days earlier in Phoenix. The Washington game also had a listed start of 1 p.m., not noon.

Still, this comes close enough on the verifiable facts. Besides, I want the fun parts of this story to be true, so I’ll choose to believe them, anyway.

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

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Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continued talking (video)

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The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.

Eric Bledsoe apparently bothered Bulls with post-buzzer dunk (video)

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Eric Bledsoe doesn’t care about the rules – written or unwritten.

As the buzzer sounded in the Bucks’ 124-115 win over the Bulls yesterday, Bledsoe dunked then hung on the rim. The basket came after time expired and didn’t count.

Bulls forward Thaddeus Young and coach Jim Boylen confronted Bledsoe on the court:

Young, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We all know what it is,” Young said. “They had the game won. There are some things you just don’t do at the end of games just out of common courtesy. We’ll move on. It is what it is. It happened. We just have to be ready when we play them in four or five days. We gotta be ready to get a win.”

“That’s with any team that cares about the morals and principles of the game,” Young said. “If we did that and the score was the opposite, they’d say the same thing. It is what it is. We just gotta be ready in four or five days. We gotta get a win. That’s the only way we can follow it back up now.”

Usually, I’d say: If you don’t like it, stop it. But that doesn’t really apply for a post-game dunk. There’s no defense after the buzzer.

Still, I’m not outraged by Bledsoe’s dunk. I bet, aside from Bulls partisans, most people aren’t (though plenty could work themselves into a tizzy if they desire). Some of Chicago’s bitterness probably stemmed from losing and allowing Bledsoe to score 31 points on 12-of-12 shooting inside the arc.

If the Bulls want to use this as motivation, more power to them. They should. Young, whose professionalism appears exemplary, is an ideal messenger.

But Boylen, who wouldn’t comment on this to the media, can’t claim the moral high ground.