GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A key start-up date for the Florida basketball offseason tipped off Wednesday morning when a core group of the 2013-14 Gators reported for individual instruction workouts.
DeVon Walker was there.
It was exactly a month ago that Walker, a seldom-used freshman forward, informed UF coach Billy Donovan he was going to transfer to another school.
After playing only 99 minutes his rookie season and averaging less than a point per game, Walker had gone home to Winter Haven, Fla., at the end of the spring semester to ponder his future. He talked to his family, who knew he was unhappy on the bench. He talked to his friends, who didn’t understand why he was on the bench.
From that vaccum, Walker made a decision.
“I just felt like they all wanted me to go somewhere else,” he said.
It took a day or two away from family and friends for Walker to realize what he wanted to do was all that mattered.
Walker, deep down, wanted to stay. His coach was supportive, but clear in what his player could expect.
“If I thought he had no chance, I would have told him he needed to make a change, but I never said that because I don’t believe it,” Donovan said. “The fact is, I told DeVon I think he can be a really, really effective player here if he was willing to go though the process.”
Not all freshmen can be Bradley Beal. Heck, not all can be Michael Frazier. There are a lot of DeVon Walker stories in college basketball.
The so-called process Donovan referenced can be frustrating -- especially at 0.8 points per game and 11 "DNP/Coach’s Decisions" in your first year -- but sometimes players need to sit in order to develop. Sometimes, in a program like Florida’s, players occupying roster spots 7-thru-13 roster can grow into starters or invaluable contributors as they mature as sophomores, juniors and seniors.
That is now Walker’s vision for himself.
“I’m here and I’m excited,” he said. “I’m sure there are people out there saying, ‘Man, this guy doesn’t know what he wants to do,’ but I do know. I want to be here and I want to work to become the best player I can be.”
The 6-foot-6, 191-pound Walker needed to step away from outside influences -- the ones that saw him average nearly 24 point and better than 10 rebounds per game in high school and figured he’d make an instant impact in the Southeastern Conference -- before realizing the best situation for him was the one he already was in.
After a year being coached by Donovan and his staff, and a year in the UF system, Walker is worlds ahead of where he was when he signed in April 2012. He also understands there’s still so much room for improvement.
“Next year, there’s a lot of uncertainty for me, but what I do know is that I’ve got to get a lot better,” Walker said. “I’ve got two guys in front of me at my position, so no one knows how much I’m going to play. The coaches were honest with me about that; they were very honest.”
Honest enough to throw out the “R” word.
As in redshirting.
“Going into the year, I’m going to give him every opportunity to compete and play, but I don’t want him to go through a year like last year where he really only got a chance to play in very limited roles,” Donovan said. “We can’t afford to do that with him, so I told him one of the things he may have to consider is redshirting.”
Perspective check: Walker would have had to red-shirt had he transferred anyway, so what he had to weigh is whether a new landing spot (new system, new coaching staff, new teammates) would have been a better situation in 2014-15 than his place with the Gators.
Right now, UF’s fall depth chart likely has Dorian Finney-Smith, the 6-8 sophomore transfer from Virginia Tech, and athletic Casey Prather, who averaged 6.2 points and 3.3 rebounds as a key reserve last season, ahead of Walker at the small forward spot. Finding minutes between those two, not to mention Donovan’s preference to play three guards for long stretches, could be difficult.
Last year, some of Walker’s most quality minutes came at the power forward spot when the Gators dealt with foul trouble or the injury to Will Yeguete. Walker is not a power forward anymore than he’s a two-guard, another position UF figures to be stocked next season. His true position is the "3" spot.
That’s his focus now when he wakes up at 6:30 each morning to come to the gym to shoot; when he reports for brutal lifting and conditioning sessions; when he’s back in the gym for pickup in the afternoon and again for more shooting late at night. Now, roll individual instruction into the mix.
They say players are made in the offseason. DeVon Walker intends to live that motto and see what happens.
“I understand there are guys here who are older and better right now and I can’t overlook that, but just being in this program with all these great players gives you more incentive to work and become a better player,” Walker said. “Nobody knows the player I’m going to be, but what I do know is that I’m going to work really hard and nothing but good -- for me and this team -- can come from that.”