- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Whenever anyone asked forward Antoine Walker how he spent his summer, the answer was always the same: in a pressure cooker. He got up every morning in his native Chicago and put himself through a punishing workout, played ball with other pros in the area and then wondered who was going to benefit from all his hard work and sweat.
Would it be the Celtics, who drafted him sixth overall in 1996 and heralded him as their next franchise player? Or would it be the Heat, who began trade talks with Boston after word got out late last season that Celtics CEO Paul Gaston had no intention of paying Walker anywhere near the $100 million he would have commanded as a free agent under the old collective bargaining agreement? During the labor strife Walker also wondered what a new agreement would mean for him financially.
All the fretting ended for Walker, 22, when the lockout did. Under the new guidelines Boston was more than willing—ecstatic, really—to lock up its young All-Star for the next six years at a cost of $71.1 million. "I wanted to be a Celtic the rest of my career," says a relieved Walker.
But can he put the emotional scars from the months preceding the labor settlement behind him? In addition to worrying that Boston might unload him, Walker also publicly questioned the caustic way his coach, Rick Pitino, had treated him. Walker haughtily declared that he commanded respect because he was a "veteran All-Star," even though last season's All-Star Game appearance was his first. That comment brought criticism from fans and the media.
The Celtics are hoping the immaturity that plagued Walker in his first two seasons is also behind him. He constantly battled referees, and often his shot selection was questionable. Yet his skills are undeniable; few young forwards rebound and bring the ball up the floor as well as Walker does.
While Boston has done little to add experience to its young roster, it did get some rebounding help in Popeye Jones, a 6'8" forward who last played for the Raptors, and Tony Battie, an athletic 6'11" forward-center who spent last year with the Nuggets and could fit nicely in Boston's frenetic trapping and running system.
The X factor will be point guard Kenny Anderson, a midseason acquisition in '97-98. Although tendinitis in both knees curtailed Anderson's playing time, his offensive direction improved Boston's shooting percentage considerably (477% when he was on the court compared with 42.5% when he wasn't). With Walker, second-year guard Ron Mercer and the team's 1998 first-round draft pick, forward Paul Pierce, the Celtics have three scorers, but they need Anderson healthy to make sure someone gets them the ball.
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