It takes a lot to get Walt Lemon Jr. nervous. But, he admitted, he was “jittery” when he was announced as part of the Chicago Bulls' starting lineup April 6 at the United Center. He was playing in his hometown, for the team he grew up idolizing, and it was proof that he had arrived.
“To hear the crowd react and show me that type of love, it was special. I honestly didn't expect it,” Lemon said.
Now Lemon just wants to get back to the NBA, to feel that love again, to show that dreams can become reality – again.
“No matter where you start or where you come from, as long as you work hard and believe in yourself and really understand the process, and that everybody's path is different, the sky's the limit,” said Lemon, who is about to begin his third season with the Mad Ants. “I went to Bradley and nobody expected me to be where I am now. It's just a testament to my hard work.”
Lemon played six games last season with the Bulls, averaging 14.3 points, 5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 27.8 minutes, and that included a game at Washington in which he had 24 points, eight assists and three rebounds in a 115-114 Bulls victory.
He's one of the Mad Ants' great success stories.
The Mad Ants used their second-round pick in the 2015 G League draft on Lemon, banking that the second-year player out of Bradley could overwhelm opponents with his speed and athletic ability. He averaged 13.5 points, 3.4 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals that season.
But after a year overseas, it was in his return to Fort Wayne in 2017-18 that he really shined. He averaged 22.4 points, 6.1 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2 steals, was among the G League's leading scorers, and earned his first NBA call-up to the New Orleans Pelicans.
He parlayed that into a two-way contract last season with the Boston Celtics. After they released him, Fort Wayne wanted to bring Lemon back but didn't have the available minutes because they were developing players such as Edmond Sumner for the Indiana Pacers.
So Lemon was traded to the Windy City Bulls, the minor-league team of the Chicago Bulls.
“It put my confidence through the roof. Being from Chicago and playing for your home team, I don't think anybody could ask for any more,” Lemon said. “It was special to put on that Bulls uniform.”
But Lemon has long considered Fort Wayne his second home and was ecstatic when the Mad Ants reacquired him this fall.
“Fort Wayne has always been a home to me. It's not that far from my actual home in Chicago. I'm familiar with the city. I'm familiar with the organization,” Lemon said. “The fans have really embraced me here. It just feels good. Of course, I want to be in the NBA, but if I have to be in the G League, this is definitely the spot I'd want to be in for sure.”
So how does the 6-foot-3 Lemon, 27, get back to the NBA?
He said it's about understanding what his role would be, as much as showing he is capable of producing gaudy stats.
“Just stay consistent and show I can run a team as a point guard, I can be tenacious on defense and just play my role. I know each team asks different things of different guys,” Lemon said. “I know if a team brings me in, they probably won't ask me to score 30 right away because they'll already have that guy. I'm older now, so I understand the process and I understand what my role would be going upstairs.
“I need to show teams that, with that given chance, I can do it and there won't be any drop-off from the starting point guard position (to me).”