Chris Walker’s freshman season as a Gator did not go as planned. The ESPN top-10 recruit missed over half of the season due to academic eligibility issues and a drawn out investigation by the NCAA over whether he received improper benefits during AAU play. By the time he finally played his first game on February 4 against Missouri, the legend of Chris Walker had grown to a fever pitch. Students wearing #FreeWalker t-shirts could be found all over the Florida campus and fans erupted into hysteria when Walker caught an alley-oop from fellow five-star recruit and former AAU teammate Kasey Hill for the first points of his NCAA career. Despite Coach Donovan’s emphatic efforts to temper expectations, fans expected Walker to add to third-ranked Florida’s embarrassment of riches in a big way.
The Gators finished the regular season as the number one ranked team in the country and the first team to go 18-0 in SEC play. By the time Walker was eligible, the Gators were a well-oiled machine, led by four defensive-minded seniors. In the end it was difficult for Walker to crack Florida’s tough rotation. Rotations were set and the learning curve for a guy from a small town on the Florida panhandle who hadn’t played organized basketball in several months was too steep. On the season Walker finished with a modest stat line of 4.8 min, 1.9 ppg and 1.3 rpg while shooting a promising 59% from the field.
So why then is Walker projected to go 15th in our way, way too early 2015 mock draft? Simply put, Walker is an elite athlete at the power forward position. Despite noticeable rawness, Walker was actually quite productive in his short stints on the court last season. Per 40 minutes, Walker put up a meaningless, albeit interesting, 15.6 ppg, 11 rpg, 3.7 blks per game. Let’s take a look at what we know about his game so far in his young career.
“The strongest parts of Chris’ game right now are his motor, athleticism and competitiveness. Chris is a guy who cares a lot about winning,” Mark Daigneault, assistant to the head coach at the University of Florida, told me.
The 6’9”, 220 pound Walker can fly. He not only jumps incredibly high, but he’s also lightning quick off the ground. On rebounds, Walker does a nice job of putting his lateral quickness and 7’1” wingspan to good use. He covers a lot of area quickly and compensates for his thin frame by extending fully and swiftly swiping missed shots with one arm in traffic. As a shot blocker, Walker shows immense potential. He’s got great timing and he could easily become a vicious weak side defender with his dangerous blend of length, quickness and leaping ability. His skill will continue to improve as a man-to-man defender and shot blocker, once he adds some strength. Last season, big guys like Dakari Johnson of Kentucky were able to use their strong base to create separation between themselves and Walker once they caught the ball in the post. Walker has great lateral quickness for his size and had no problem keeping up with opposing front courts.
Walker’s end-to-end speed is also impressive. He’s a fluid runner who doesn’t take much time to get a head of steam. He thrives in transition as a rare big man who is coordinated enough to catch a pass and make a move in one motion. Next season, we’ll see a lot of Walker in transition as he will be playing with one of the fastest point guards in the country in Hill. Playing alongside a point guard whose style accentuates Walker’s transition skills will serve as a major boost to his productivity and draft stock. Although Walker is thin, he’s strong with the ball and capable of finishing through contact.
Walker’s best game of the season was against a strong LSU frontline. In that game he used his quickness to front the stronger Johnny O’Bryant and deny several entry passes. Although sometimes out of position, Walker showed a lot of effort and energy on the defensive end this season as you see in the clip below (Walker is #23).
There is still a lot to be determined about Walker’s game. He oozes potential, but so did Stromile Swift. Walker played at a small high school against weak competition and never really had to develop his game beyond being uber-athletic and huge. In the post Walker goes up strong but shows little finesse or footwork. Moreover, while Walker’s aggression at the rim is promising, like many players he tends to rush the process.
Walker’s biggest weakness at this stage of his career is his basketball IQ. It remains to be seen whether this has to do with inexperience or if there is a larger issue at play. Coach Donovan is very open about Walker’s need to develop his basketball acumen. In an interview for a recently published piece on Walker in the Orlando Sentinel, coach Billy Donovan noted:
“I think one of his biggest struggles last year was understanding and picking up defensive schemes. That was really, really hard for him. Guarding a lot of different pick and rolls, guarding a lot of different screening actions.”
Further comments from Donovan went on to suggest that basketball IQ and decision making weren’t only a problem on the defensive end:
“Even watching him last year in practice there’s things he did where I was like, ‘Chris, leave that back at Bonifay. We’re not doing it here.’ I mean he’d come down on the break and legitimately shoot a 3-point shot. Or he’d get the ball off the backboard and drive the length of the floor. I’d be like, ‘Chris, get it to a guard …’”
“The offseason development plan created by Chris and the coaches focused on adding strength and developing life habits that will allow him to be a consistent, high level performer on an everyday basis,” Daigneault said.
This is Chris’ first summer working with the UF strength and conditioning coach. Walker was 6’10” 202 pounds when he got to Gainesville. He’s already up to 220 pounds and hopes to be at 230 by the start of next season. If Walker’s recent Instagram photo is any indication, he’s well on his way.
Daigneault was careful to clarify that forming better, more consistent life habits was something that most incoming players needed to work on and that this was nothing particular to Walker.
In terms of Walker’s role on the team next season, anything could happen.
“Aside from Michael Frazier, it’s hard to define anyone’s role at this point. We lost four starters and added a lot of newcomers. Chris’ role will be determined by his performance in practice, his consistency and his ability to impact winning in a game,” Daigneault said.
Walker’s motor was a strength of his game last season. It will be important for him to maintain a consistent, high motor as he takes on larger role and more playing time this upcoming season.
Walker is a phenomenal athlete. Because of his eligibility issues last season he missed out on so much of the process that most freshmen go through in terms of becoming part of the team culture and playing in early games when the team is coming together and building its foundation. We’ll have a much better opportunity to evaluate and understand Walker as a player this upcoming season.
His ceiling is obviously unbelievable. Now it’s all about putting the pieces together and having a better grasp of complicated defensive schemes. For some guys this happens quickly, for others it never does.