Saturday December 14, 2013The kid they call 'Sky' Walker finally where he wants to be
Updated: 10:26am, December 15
Updated: 10:26am, December 15
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The kid leaned over toward the laptop resting on the scorer’s table. The screen was opened to a story on GatorZone.com. The headline was worth reading out loud.
Chris Walker officially joins Gators
“I like that,” Chris Walker said.
So did a lot of people associated with the Gators, starting with everyone inside the University of Florida basketball complex Saturday after Walker, the 6-foot-10, 220-pound freshman forward, reported for his first day of practice.
Walker, a 2013 McDonald’s All-American and a consensus top-10 national prospect from his signing class, did not qualify academically for the fall semester, but spent the last several months completing his core requirements for admission to the university for the 2014 spring semester.
“Basically, all of my time has been working on the [school] side of things, instead of the basketball side,” said Walker, who for now is eligible to practice, but not compete in games. “It means a lot to finally get where I wanted to be.”
That statement, right there, is why the UF coaching staff is so enthused about Walker coming into the fold; even nine games into the season. He signed with the Gators in November 2012, but did not let his off-court setbacks deter him from accomplishing his goal of putting on a Florida uniform.
“Think about it, you graduate from high school and all your friends and teammates go off to college. You’re a McDonald’s All-American and you can’t,” said UF assistant coach Matt McCall, who recruited Walker out of Bonifay (Fla.) Holmes County High, where he led his team to the Class 1A state title last spring. “Not once did he blame anyone else. He took ownership that he could have done a better job with his responsibilities and set out to fix his situation.”
For that, Gators coach Billy Donovan praised Walker’s resiliency and determination. Now, he and the rest of the UF staff will start implementing their plan of crash-coursing the new big man in the way things are done -- on and off the court -- in the UF program.
Translation: Even with a player as talented as Walker, expectations need to be tempered.
“He hasn’t been in anything structured or organized. He’s just been working out on his own and trying to stay in shape,” said Donovan, who introduced Walker to the basic concepts of the offense Saturday. “It would be unfair to expect this kid to come in and dominate and be unbelievable. That would be putting him in a bad situation. But clearly, he has great upside and potential.”
Walker averaged 32 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocked shots a game as a senior. He also won the slam-dunk contest at the McDonald’s All-America game.
In his own words, none of that matters now.
“That was high school,” Walker said.
True, but in Walker the Gators have a rare and extraordinarily gifted athlete for someone his size. Think Casey Prather plus five inches. For UF, off to a 7-2 start, that figures to mean a deeper front court and more options on defense, whether in man, zone or in full-court pressure.
Now, throw that unique energy element that garnered “Sky” Walker -- good nickname, eh? -- a reputation in high school and on the AAU circuit as going full-bore all game long.
“He’s not a polished player, but the one thing that makes front-court players really good is an incredible threshold to handle fatigue -- and he’s got that,” Donovan said. “He never stops. He just keeps playing. I’m not saying he’s in great shape now, but when I watched him play [as a recruit] he just kept coming and coming and never got tired.”
UF point guard Kasey Hill, an AAU teammate of Walker’s and the other half of Florida’s heralded two-man freshman class, knows that player better than anyone on the team.
“He’s going to make some crazy plays; rebounds, dunks, tip-backs, alley-oops, you’ll see," Hill said. "It’ll be fun.”
Walker was watching on television Tuesday when the Gators rolled out a 1-3-1 half-court zone defense and completely discombobulated Kansas with their length, quickness and athleticism. He thought about playing at the top of that defense. He thought about playing in the middle, too. Or on a wing.
Or anywhere, as long as it was in a UF uniform.
He wore a practice one Saturday. It's a start.
“I just envisioned myself being in there, blocking shots, tipping balls and keep guys from going in the lane,” Walker said. “I thought about running the court and catching lobs from Kasey. You know, like old times.”
Like present times. Chris Walker is officially a Gator.
And he likes it.