BOSTON — Last year’s Boston Celtics were defined by a point guard wearing No. 11. Wednesday afternoon, the team unveiled both their new point guard, Kemba Walker, and new No. 11, Enes Kanter, in what was hailed as a new day for the franchise.
Still, Kanter couldn’t help but take one poke at Kyrie Irving during the introductory press conference at the team’s practice facility.
“It was my old jersey number,” Kanter said, before adding with a smile, “and I wanted to be the reason no one else did,” referencing Irving’s Nike commercial shot at TD Garden with his father, Drederick, last fall, in which he said the same thing.
As the room broke into laughter, Kanter quickly followed up with, “I had to say it.”
For the most part, though, Wednesday was about new beginnings in Boston. The franchise tried to turn the page on the past two years — which, for much of that time, seemed like the start of a long run in Boston for Irving. But over the final few months of last season the bloom was off the rose between the two sides, with an abrupt loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs — a round earlier than the Celtics reached without him a year earlier — marking the final time Irving would play for the team.
That was confirmed at the start of free agency, when he opted to leave as a free agent to join Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan with the Brooklyn Nets — a decision that didn’t come as a surprise to Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.
“I think I had a pretty good idea in March or April,” Ainge said, when asked when he knew Irving would leave. “Not for sure though, not certain.
“But I was obviously thinking a move in a different direction at that point, thinking of the different options.”
It turned out that once Irving and Al Horford, who opted out of the final year of his contract and wound up signing with another Atlantic Division rival, the Philadelphia 76ers, chose to leave town, those options centered on, according to Ainge, Walker and Kanter. Ainge said the two of them were the team’s top priorities in free agency after the draft, and that it was able to come to an agreement with Walker almost immediately after free agency opened at 6 p.m. on June 30.
Throughout the season, Walker had been open about wanting to remain in Charlotte, where he’d spent the first eight years of his career after winning a national championship at the University of Connecticut as a junior in 2011. Ultimately, though, he said the draw of being with a franchise that has consistently won — Boston has been in the playoffs five straight seasons, and has won at least one series in each of the last three of them — was too much to pass up.
After making the playoffs only twice in his career — and losing in the first round each time — Walker said he was ready to do more winning as he approaches his 30s.
“Throughout my career we just haven’t been consistent with winning,” Walker said. “I’m not saying that’s going to happen here, because I don’t know. I can’t see the future or anything like that, but I want to win. I want to be on a team that goes out and competes every night on a high level.
“Watching Boston over the years, man, that’s just what they’ve done. That’s what they’ve done. They’ve competed at a very high level each and every year, been in the playoffs every year, and I want to be a part of something like that. So that was kind of some of the things that went into my decision.”
It wasn’t at all clear the Celtics were going to be in a position to be competitive at that type of level when Irving was all but certain to leave and Horford appeared likely to join him at this time a month ago. At that point, it looked like Boston would be pivoting to a re-tooling of their roster centered around their young wings, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
But when Walker came into the picture, the Celtics were quickly able to pivot and get a new building block for the present — one they’ll hope, along with improved play from Gordon Hayward a full year removed from the devastating leg and ankle injuries that robbed him of all but the first six minutes of the 2017-18 season, will allow them to remain in the mix atop the East.
“It’s different,” Walker said. “I don’t know if we’re going to be better, I can’t tell the future, but we have a really good team, a bunch of young guys who are very talented who I’m looking forward to playing with.
“But yeah, do I think we can be good? Yeah. I do. I think I’ll be a huge part of that, as well as to grow the young guys, we need those guys to step up and be huge for the team, as well as Gordon. We want Gordon to have a great year as well, which I think he will because he’s been working. That’s what it takes to succeed in this league.
“So yeah, I’m excited. Hopefully it’s great things to come.”
One recurring theme throughout last season was Irving’s rocky relationship with the team’s young players, which went through many ups-and-downs throughout the year. Boston will be hoping Walker, especially now that he’s around for the next four years, will be able to forge a stronger one.
The fact he already has pre-existing relationships with both of them — Tatum recently signed with Jordan Brand, which Walker is part of, and the two spent time in Paris together, and he went on a trip to Africa with Brown in the past — should help. And when asked directly about it, Walker said he was confident he’d be able to help them grow into the players Boston hopes they can be.
“I think so,” Walker said. “I think so. I think my skills complement these guys. I love to get in the lane and I’m gonna have a lot of attention. That’ll definitely open up opportunities for other guys but for the most part, I think I made my teammates better in other ways, just being a good teammate, wanting the best for those guys and pushing them as much as possible. It’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
As for his own number selection, Walker said he chose to wear No. 8 — the same as former fan favorite Antoine Walker — because his birthday is May 8, and because “there’s no numbers available,” he said with a laugh.
“But it’s cool to wear Antoine Walker’s number. I spoke to him, and he gave me the blessing as well, so I’m excited.”