kemba walker
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Kemba Walker’s return has revitalized the New York Knicks.

At first, Kemba Walker returned to the New York Knicks rotation out of necessity. Several of his teammates being in the health and safety protocols left New York shorthanded, so he just got minutes by default.

Now, though the Knicks are still under .500, the Bronx native’s return to the lineup has now energized the team. The Knicks are 2-2 since Walker’s returned. It doesn’t matter that the two wins were against the league-worst Detroit Pistons and a COVID-depleted Atlanta Hawks team. Even in losses to the Celtics and Wizards, the New York Knicks have played well.

And through it all, Kemba Walker did what he finally came to New York to do and simply led the team. No more trying to do too much and just assume the leader’s role the way he did earlier in the season. The new Walker, as we saw on Christmas Day in the Hawks, is the real leader the Knicks need, one who trusts his teammates unconditionally and lets the game come to him.

With a big road trip coming up and Derrick Rose out recovering from ankle surgery, the New York Knicks need this new Kemba Walker to keep it up.

Kemba Walker did it all

When Walker returned to the lineup, it was as though he never left. Ever the baller, he knew his team needed him and, win or lose, he put them on his back.

This was indicative last week when, in the Knicks’ three games, Walker stuffed the stat sheet and then some. He averaged 25 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists as New York won two of three. Again, these weren’t necessarily big wins. The Pistons have won five games all year and the Hawks now have ten players in the health and safety protocols, including star guard Trae Young.

But between the Knicks having several players in the protocols themselves and Rose injured, Walker had no choice but to step up. He certainly did and, even better, showed incredible growth as a leader.

Kemba Walker now knows the Knicks

Let’s take another look at the Christmas Day game with Atlanta. On top of the New York topping the Hawks 101-87, Walker was the story of the game with his triple-double. It was an ugly performance, as he shot 3 of 12 from the field and 2 of 9 from three, but still finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists.

None of it mattered because his teammates trusted him. Julius Randle, who famously couldn’t get on the same page with Walker early this season, had his most efficient game in weeks and scored 25 points on 15 shots. This new trust was showcased when the two slapped hands after Randle drilled one of his six threes off an assist from Walker.

One thing is clear. Being removed from the rotation and sitting out nine games didn’t mean Kemba Walker checked out. In fact, he did the exact opposite. Sitting from the bench, he watched his team struggle and paid attention. He realized he didn’t need to be a superstar scorer for the Knicks, but more a distributor. He only scored as much as he did last week because, well, who else was going to along with Randle?

For all we know, maybe Tom Thibodeau benching Walker was meant to be a Mr. Miyagi/Daniel-san moment. Instead of wax on, wax off, Walker had to simply sit and watch. Watch the team, see how they work, look how the offense flows through each individual player. Even at their worst, watch the ball movement to ensure a guy gets a good look.

It’s a small sample size, but Kemba Walker finally seems to understand why he’s on the Knicks.

Looking ahead

From now until Sunday, the New York Knicks play four sub-.500 teams, including the Pistons again in Detroit. Kemba Walker is in a position to keep up his hot streak and get his team further up in the win column.

Rose won’t be back for several weeks, so all eyes are on Walker to lead his hometown team. Let’s see how he steps up.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.