It feels different for Kemba Walker. A new team in his 11th NBA season, different teammates, a changed role, tweaked terminology.
But it’s all familiar, too.
Tom Thibodeau’s famous emphasis on defense and its tactics is not foreign after playing for Steve Clifford with Charlotte, both former Knicks and Rockets assistants and friends with a defensive bent.
The location — Tarrytown for training camp — might be a bit foreign, but the transition will be much easier when Walker’s home games are about 5 miles from his Rice High School roots.
Of course, he is one of three New Yorkers on the team, and while the practices and preseason games exist to help them jell, Walker feels he, Taj Gibson and Obi Toppin (both Brooklyn natives) have a head start.
“It’s like we already have that connection,” Walker said Thursday at practice. “We’ve gotten along really easy.”
He knew of Toppin, but the second-year player is eight years younger than Walker. Gibson, meanwhile, apparently has been trying to see this connection in action for years.
Gibson, 36, has been recruiting Walker to New York “forever,” Walker said. They would be lined up for free throws on opposing teams and Gibson, who grew up in Fort Greene, would look back and say, “Come home.” The on-court luring was not just a one-time thing, Walker said.
“I’m finally here,” he added.
This summer, Walker signed a two-year deal with his hometown team and immediately lifted the Knicks’ ceiling, the four-time All-Star a new offensive weapon for a team that became known last year for its defense.
The first game Walker played last season with the Celtics came against Thibodeau’s Knicks, when he went 3-for-13. He missed the other two matchups, having played just 43 of 72 games with Boston because of left knee issues, which made him available this offseason.
There is on-court value he provides the Knicks, and then there is the mentoring he and Derrick Rose can do for a player like first-round pick Quentin Grimes, who signaled this week that the vets are helping him develop.
“Those [young] guys, they want to learn,” the 31-year-old Walker said. “They’re very smart guys, and if I see them doing something wrong or something they can improve on, try to help them as much as I can.”
He is trying to find the balance between being the new guy and a leader. It’s a different stage of his career, but again familiar.
All while his team tries to play defense like the great Knicks teams he watched growing up.
“Just hustle. Intensity,” Walker said of a Thibodeau defense. “Doing the extra. Never giving up and helping each other. That’s really important on the defensive end, especially in this league.”