UW's Shawn Kemp Jr. makes own way despite familiar name, number
Wearing the same No. 40 that his famous father did with the Sonics, Shawn Kemp Jr. is starting to have an impact on the Huskies.
Seattle Times staff columnist
UW @ Oregon, 8 p.m.ROOT
Shawn Kemp Jr. fileHeight, weight: 6-9, 265
Hometown: Canton, Ga.
High school: Cherokee High School, Military Academy (Va.)
Season: Averaging 1.6 points, .78 rebounds, 6.9 minutes.
The dunk looked almost like a hologram, something we'd seen before that was being replayed years later.
Another Shawn Kemp, wearing a different uniform and that same No. 40, rose on the run and hammered a left-handed dunk last week against UCLA that quaked Edmundson Pavilion the same way another Shawn Kemp did so often, almost 20 years ago inside KeyArena.
It was déjà vu all over again, kind of like that music video where Natalie Cole is singing a duet of "Unforgettable" with her late father Nat King Cole. It was the meeting of present and past.
On that crowd-pleasing dunk, you saw the father in the son.
"I've said all along, he has a lot of me inside of him," Kemp Sr. said Tuesday.
The journey from Canton, Ga., to Seattle hasn't been easy for Washington's 6-foot-9 sophomore post player. Coming out of high school he didn't qualify academically to play in college. Before this season, he hadn't played basketball in two years, and there were times when Kemp Jr. wondered if he'd ever play again.
"It was tough," he said. "It was very nerve-wracking because there was a point in time when I didn't think I'd be able to play college basketball. I wondered if I would get the chance to play at the level that I wanted to. But after working really hard and doing what I had to do, I finally got the chance to come here."
Kemp took online classes to quality for Washington. He remembers the pressure he felt on those final days, when he was finishing up his last courses in science and history.
"It was a lot of late nights, but I got it done," he said. "It took basically all of my time. But it was worth it. That day that I was told everything was good and I could come to Washington, it was a great day in my life."
Partly because of his father's legacy in this town and partly because of his engaging personality and the earnestness with which he plays, Kemp has become a fan favorite.
Heading into a huge Thursday night game at Oregon, it appears his game is coming together. Kemp is playing with more aggression. He's understanding his role, thinking less and just reacting to the flow of the game. He has lost 25 pounds and gained altitude and quickness.
After not playing in the Huskies' big win at Arizona, Kemp got his chance last weekend in wins over UCLA and USC. He had four points and two rebounds in 11 efficient minutes against the Bruins, then followed that with six points in 13 minutes against USC.
"There were several things he was fighting from the first day he started practice," said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. "Number one, he was really behind in conditioning. Number two, he hadn't played organized basketball in two years. And thirdly, this was Division I. It wasn't high school."
In the win over UCLA, Kemp provided energy to a sluggish Huskies start with his like-father-like-son dunk, followed by a tip jam.
Five minutes into the USC game, he scored on a lob, then cut off Byron Wesley's baseline drive. His contribution was more than mere numbers. And every time he left the floor, Kemp got a standing ovation.
"His rust is falling off a little bit," Romar said. "He's had to regain his timing. I think he's capable of being a very good basketball player, one that can really impact our season in a positive way."
His father watches from a distance, careful not to interfere with Romar, but always ready to offer his expertise.
"It's one of those things where, if you've been away from the game for a while, you try not to make a mistake on the court," Kemp's father said of his son. "But he kept working his butt off. Now he's to the point where he's kind of just playing."
Sure, there's pressure being Shawn Kemp Jr. in Seattle. Although he hasn't played for the Sonics since 1997, Kemp still is one of this city's most recognizable sports stars. But instead of running from that pressure, Kemp Jr. has embraced it, even wearing his father's No. 40.
"There's definitely a lot of pressure with that number," Kemp Jr. said. "Everybody's expecting me to be somewhat like him. But we're two different people."
Kemp Sr. smiles and shakes his head.
"I told him they respect the No. 40 jersey in Seattle," he said. "You're putting a lot of pressure on yourself. But I was thrilled that he wanted to wear it. I knew that he knew that he was going to have to step his game up."
Kemp's teammates' understanding of his father's impact on the game comes mostly from YouTube and hazy childhood memories.
"Freak athlete," senior power forward Darnell Gant. "Like, there was something wrong with that guy. I remember when I was young I would watch him and I would go crazy. I knew he was going to get a dunk in every game. You just didn't know what he was going to do, and it was amazing every time."
Kemp has played in 18 of Washington's 23 games. He has 13 blocks, fourth on the team, and is averaging 1.6 points. His emergence last week gives Romar another big man he'll need in these final weeks of the season.
"We really need him to bring his fire and his energy," Gant said. "He's a talented player, and I think now he's starting to show it."
He's given us glimpses of his future and his father's past. In the giant shadow cast by his father, Shawn Kemp Jr. is growing his own game.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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