When the Boston Celtics shuffled their roster this summer — swapping Kemba Walker in for the departing Kyrie Irving and losing Al Horford to the Sixers in free agency — there was a question of whether they’d slip from that top tier in the Eastern Conference. Instead, they’ve asserted themselves once again as one of the best teams in the East, and are on pace for more wins than a year ago behind stellar play from Walker, who earned a second straight All-Star Game start, and improvement from their young wings, including first-time All-Star Jayson Tatum.
At 38-16, the Celtics are solidly in the three-seed in the East, a game and a half back of the Raptors and three games up on the Miami Heat. Walker is in the midst of his most efficient season of his career, with a 53 percent effective field goal percentage while averaging 21.8 points, five assists, and 4.1 rebounds per game. The transition for Walker from Charlotte to Boston has been fairly seamless, which he credits to the easy-going nature of his teammates — and is, surely, in part due to his own easy-going ways.
The result has been a team that has to be in the discussion for the top squads in the East and a threat to make a deep playoff run. On Saturday night in Chicago, Walker sat down with Dime for a conversation after he was part of a panel on basketball fashion at JBL’s Sounds of the City activation with Sue Bird, Grayson Boucher (aka The Professor), and the Shoe Surgeon. We talked about his determination to always match his sneakers perfectly, his favorite sneakers of all-time, how Boston’s core made things easy on him coming in, how Steve Clifford was the catalyst for his three-point shot transformation, and why, like everyone else in Boston, he loves and trusts Marcus Smart.
You just got done with this panel on fashion in basketball with JBL, how would you say your personal fashion sense has changed since you came into the league to now?
I mean, I don’t think it changed much. I think for the most part it’s the fit, the fit of things has changed, but I’m still pretty much the same. I’m more of just a color coordination kind of guy. But, yeah, I don’t know if it changed much.
I see you got the new Off-White 5s.
A little light work.
A little somethin’. [laughs]
How would you describe your style with sneakers? What do you look for and what are the things you really like?
Like I said, I’m really like more into the colors and, yeah, that’s what I’m about. I like to match my jackets and, like, especially there’s some kicks out there that are just weird colors, and I’m usually that kinda guy that finds the perfect jacket or hoodie or something to match it. A lot of people might find something close to it, but that’s what I look for. I’ll wait. Like I’ll wait years to wear a pair of sneakers for the first time until I can find my perfect match.
Is there a pair of shoes you remember being like the first pair you got that you were just super excited about?
You know what, I would say the 17s. I think I was in the seventh or eighth grade and they came with the suitcase, and they was like $200 at the time. I know it was me and this one girl in my school and we was the only ones that had ’em, you know. They were the white and blue ones, I’ll never forget that. The white and royal blue one. I think it was when MJ first was with the Wizards, so that’s one of my fondest memories.
What are some of your favorites in the collection right now?
I’m a big Jordan 12 guy. I love 12s, my favorite shoe. White and cherry, my favorite all-time. So, yeah, that’s it.
I do want to talk a little ball, what’s this season been like? You come into a new spot and you have to assume a leadership role as a point guard and a star level player, but what is it like going into a new situation and new locker room and having to find that balance in getting to know the guys but being assertive at times?
Yeah, you know what, I was real blessed to be able to meet — so I met Jaylen [Brown] early, even before I came to the Celtics. We met in Africa with the NBA Basketball Without Borders and we hit it off. I met his family, I met his mom, his mom met my mom, and from there on whenever we seen each other in the season we were pretty cordial, I guess. Then, last summer before I signed with the Celtics I met Jayson, who we hit it off really well. And then we all met — me, Jayson, Marcus, and Jaylen — we all did USA Basketball, which made my transition so much easier. Those are the core guys of the team. I’ve known Gordon over the years, you know, playing against him and just seeing him around, so I already knew the core guys, so they just made things super easy for me and really allowing me to be myself.
I’m super easy to get along with. I’m super easy to talk to, you know, I’m down to earth. So, it was pretty easy, man. It was definitely tough being in a new situation. You just don’t wanna overstep your boundaries and step on toes, but like I said, those guys, they’re so cool and just allow me to be myself over the course of the season.
For your game, from when you come into the league to now, what’s the process you have to go through to learn how to be critical with your game so you can improve on key parts. I talk to guys a lot and I’ll ask, “What do you want to improve on?” And they’ll say, “Everything.”
And like, I get it…
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
But at the same time was there a point where you learned I really need to think about my game on a critical level and be willing to say, “this is what I’m not great at,” and work on it?
Yeah, for me it was, at one point, my three-point shooting. I just had to get my percentages up at one point, and when coach Clifford came to Charlotte, we met and it was the first thing he told me, “You can’t allow guys to get under the screens.” He told me, “That’s your next step, to become a consistent shooter.”
And from that day on, I don’t think I ever worked harder at my shot. I was just in the gym constantly putting up shots. Even doing, like, boring things for very long times like technique and, man, I was just super locked in. And it paid off. He told me, if I get that, I’ll be an All-Star, and he was right. That’s what it was for me. It was just really getting my three-point shot better.
Is that what you’re most proud of?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Changed my life. Changed my life. Like, yeah, I can’t say enough about it.
Marcus Smart seems like one of the most unique and interesting guys in the league…
Yes he is. [laughs]
Do you have a favorite Smart story?
On the court, off the court, whatever. Cause he seems like just a fascinating dude.
He really is. That’s my guy. I gotta think about this one…[long pause]…I don’t know man. He just does things that wows you in ways that like, it’s just so unreal sometimes the things that he does on the defensive end, especially for his size. Like he literally jumps with guys six, seven, eight inches taller than him, and blocks them at the rim. He takes charges, literally just takes the ball from people.
He had that steal the other night…
For the game! For the game, man, like…c’mon man. And for him, he was just calm, regular, like, “This is what I do.”
FINAL: Celtics 112, Thunder 111
Marcus Smart sealed the win with a game-winning steal on SGA during the final seconds. Boston has now won 10 out of 11 after downing OKC, which had won nine out of 10 itself. pic.twitter.com/51BXgnDnjh
— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) February 9, 2020
And everyone else is hype like “Ahh!”
He’s like this is what I do. And that’s just who he is, he brings a certain type of energy and toughness to our ball club.
Having a guy like that, it seems like y’alls group kinda embraces their roles…
And he’s not a guy that’s gonna shoot a ton or get all the buckets, but is that a tone-setting thing when everyone sees like, Marcus is always doing his thing.
Oh yeah, no question. That’s what this league is about. When you have guys who know their roles and just do what they do, it just makes things easier for everyone around. Even though he does get his shots up, he just plays within the system. Like, we love him. I love him. I love being around him and he energizes us, and he builds us up on that end of the floor. Cause we know what he’s bringing, so we have to match him on that end of the floor.