A lot can change in three years. Just ask Chris Walker.
In 2013, Walker was a budding lottery talent playing high school basketball in Bonifay, Florida. He was a top-15 recruit in a class that featured Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon, and he stayed close to home to attend the University of Florida under now Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan.
After what can only be summed up as a largely disappointing two years at Florida, Walker decided to enter the 2015 NBA Draft. The night came and went, but Walker’s name was not called. Stark contrast from a couple years prior when he was a lottery lock.
“Maturity. I’ve matured a lot,” Walker told U&M recently about what’s changed since college. “I’m treating every practice like it’s a game situation. I understand that I have to be locked in at all times.”
Another sign of his maturity? He knows he messed up.
“Look, I went to small high school and it was just too easy. I wasn’t as focused as I needed to be, but now I understand this is a job and I’m locked in.”
Walker turned 21-years-old three days before Christmas. He’s still one of the top prospects in the land. Consider him an NCAA junior and NBA scouts would be salivating over his improvement from his first two years to now. In 14 games this season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the 6-10 forward is averaging 12.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in just over 23 minutes a night.
“If I would have gotten this opportunity in college I think you would be seeing the same type of production from me,” Walker said. “I came into my sophomore year at Florida with big expectations and I didn’t get much of an opportunity.”
Vipers head coach Matt Brase had nothing but positive things to say about Walker, too.
“Chris has been unbelievable. He was with us in Houston for training camp and I started a relationship with him there and I let him know he had some changes to needed to be made. He’s an NBA talent, and I truly believe that. He’s bought in. He’s texting me asking for film daily and he’s worked hard to implement what we see on film. He’s been humbled and he needed this fresh start.”
The film aspect is important for Walker, because there were reports on him coming out of college saying he was lost on both ends of the court. For the top tier players in the D-League, talent usually isn’t the issue. Many — often small — aspects of knowing the game inside and out are just as important for a fringe NBA player to show.
After all, NBA teams want to know what they are going to get from a player night in and night out — consistency is almost on par with upside. The all encompassing potential can only take you so far as a player. Teams do not want a sloppy performance one night and a pristine performance the next. Even if they aren’t all perfect, the variance in one’s output need to be relatively small in margin.
“He’s been pretty good on defense,” said Brase when asked about Walker picking up on their schemes. “Offensively, he started a step behind but he’s asking the right questions. He has a willingness to learn and he’s able to immediately put that into action and that’s what I want to see continue from him.”
Walker has played to his strengths this season and that shows when you look deeper into his shooting stats. He’s attempted 116 field goals and amazingly 104 (at a 65 percent clip) of those have come within five feet of the basket. “Mid range shots aren’t part of our philosophy,” Brase quipped. “He’s listening to the coaches and that’s why you see that discrepancy.”
Another example of Walker showing he’s coachable and able to implement new aspects of his game. Walker also chimed in on his shooting: “Outside shooting will come later. The league wants to see me running the floor, playing pick-and-roll offense and defense, and being a monster on the glass, so that’s what I’m doing.”
Not everyone can, or has to be, a jack-of-all-trades to make an impact in the NBA, and Walker has certainly come to realize that early in his pro career. Just watch him play for the Vipers and you can see a vibrant prospect who looks to be having the time of his life. He regularly cheers for teammates, celebrates their accomplishments and every now and then you might catch a dance move or two.
“I break out the dance moves at practice sometimes,” he said. “Maybe even on the bench — gotta have fun out there, man.”
The days of being gushed over as a lottery pick have come and gone, but in the short time he’s been with the Rockets’ organization he has made monumental strides toward his future as an NBA forward. Talent has never been the issue with Walker. As all of the other aspects of his basketball IQ catch up, he looks to be a valuable young asset for any NBA club.
Don’t be surprised if Walker sticks in the NBA and becomes an even better story for hard work and perseverance. Remember, a lot can change in three years.