While Kemba Walker was honing his game on the playgrounds of New York City, his fondness for driving the lane without slowing down earned him the nickname E-Z Pass. But after two pedestrian seasons in Storrs, the 6' 1" junior point guard has shied away from rim-rattling dunks in favor of workmanlike layups and jumpers, and become a highlight-reel staple in the process.
The nation's leading scorer, with 28.1 points per game through Sunday, Walker has led the Huskies to an 8--0 start and a No. 6 ranking that few anticipated following last season's disappointing NIT finish. (In the interest of full disclosure, SI did not even have UConn in its projected 68-team bracket.)
Walker's metamorphosis began late last winter after a phone conversation with Emanuel (Book) Richardson, an assistant at Arizona who was Walker's AAU coach in the Bronx. Defenders, Richardson told Walker, were showing him "the ultimate sign of disrespect" by collapsing on ball screens and daring him to shoot. And even when he had an open look, Walker couldn't shake the mind-set he had in high school, when it was much easier to drive to the hoop and score against lesser competition. Walker made only 40.3% of his shots while averaging 14.6 points last season.
"If he missed even two in a row, he would always give up on his jump shot and drive to the basket," says Drexel guard Chris Fouch, Walker's best friend and AAU teammate.
"Sometimes if I missed my first one," Walker admits, "I wouldn't shoot it again."
Richardson has always urged Walker to pace himself and control the offense, saying, "You've got the keys to the car. Don't crash the Escalade." But this approach didn't take hold until last summer when Walker, for the first time, completely stepped away from streetball's unforgiving steel rims. He instead practiced with Team USA prior to the world championships and picked up tips from NBA guards Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul. Walker then spent the rest of the summer in Storrs taking countless shots at Gampel Pavilion's more forgiving rims.
Walker has not altered his shooting technique, but he did develop a new, unshakable confidence that has opened up the floor for both himself and his teammates. He earned MVP honors at the Maui Invitational last month, which helped UConn defeat two top 10 opponents while putting him in the player of the year discussion. He also had his first career triple double, against UMBC on Dec. 3. And despite Walker's taking more shots away from the basket, his shooting percentage has jumped to 53.3%; from beyond the arc, he has leaped from 33.9% to 42.6%. When it comes to guarding E-Z Pass, opponents will have to pay a more exacting toll.
Now on SI.com
For Luke Winn's Power Rankings and Seth Davis's mailbag go to SI.com/cbb