NEW YORK — Kemba Walker smiled at the thought of playing at Madison Square Garden in front of his hometown fans, but when asked about joining the Knicks when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer, the All-Star guard said the rumors don’t affect him at all and offered no definitive answers.
“I’ve been hearing it for years now, the Knicks,” he told reporters during his appearance at NBPA youth summer basketball camp on Thursday. “Every time I come home — ‘When you coming home to the Knicks?’ — that’s all I get now. So I don’t know. MSG is a special place. The Knicks are a special team. Of course I was a Knicks fan growing up. Always rooted for the home team. But like I said, I really can’t see myself in a Knicks jersey — ONLY because I’ve only been in one jersey. I really don’t know.”
Walker has one year left on his four-year, $48 million extension and will command max or near-max money as he enters the free agent pool next summer. Other notable free agents in next year’s class include Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, DeAndre Jordan and Al Horford.
When asked if an offer from the Knicks could be tempting, Walker said: “We’ve gotta see, man. We’ve gotta see. I’ve never been a free agent. I’ve never been free. So, I don’t know. We’ll see.”
The Hornets could offer Walker a five-year max contract worth $188 million if they’re interested in keeping him for the future. Any other team can offer him a maximum of four years at $139 million. Walker has maintained his loyalty to Charlotte, but the Hornets publicly dangled him on the trading block last season. It is unclear if he is part of their plans for the future.
While the Hornets guard wouldn’t say he’s interested in joining the Knicks franchise he grew up adoring as a kid, Walker did praise second-year point guard Frank Ntilikina.
“I like him. I thought he got better every game,” he admitted. “I thought he got better as the season went on. I’m a fan of him. He can really defend. He has great length. You can just see he’s getting better, man. That’s what this league is all about. It’s all about getting better. Year-in Year-out, every game, every day. It’s all about working on your game, and I can tell that he works on his game. You gotta respect that.”
He also offered this remark about new Knicks head coach David Fizdale: “I know Fiz. He coached us I wanna say for one of the Rookie Challenge games. The rookie-sophomore game. He was really cool. I see him all the time.”
The Knicks are entering Year 2 of rebuilding in the post-Carmelo Anthony era and finished 29-53 last season. Walker is committed to Charlotte and is loyal to the franchise that drafted him, but it is unclear what his priorities are should he decide to leave.
The 2019-20 salary cap is projected at $109 million, and New York currently has $70 million in guaranteed contracts on tap for the 2019-20 season. They could create more space if they stretch the final year on Joakim Noah’s contract next summer and trade Courtney Lee while taking back less than his $12.7 million salary. A max contract next summer for players with 7-9 years of experience pays $32.7 million in Year 1 and $40.5 million in Year 4.
The only other players that would be left on the roster are rookies Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Lance Thomas, Damyean Dotson. New York also has a team option on Ntilikina and can choose to keep him or let him become an unrestricted free agent.
The Knicks are also purported potential suitors for both Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler, both of whom are max contract players interested in playing together. New York must also offer Kristaps Porzingis a max contract extension next summer, though they can do that last after signing free agents with cap space. Porzingis’ max projects to be a five-year extension worth $158 million, similar to what Nikola Jokic signed in Denver, paying $27.2 million in Year 1.