Thursday January 30, 2014 Chris Walker is coming ... now what?
Updated: 12:10pm, January 30
Updated: 12:10pm, January 30
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Before the film session on Mississippi State preceding Wednesday’s practice, Florida coach Billy Donovan stood before his team and went off topic.
"Hey guys, I've got some good news for you. ... Chris Walker has been cleared to play Tuesday."
As you might imagine, pandemonium ensued.
Walker, the 6-foot-10 center who joined the team in December, instantly was surrounded by his teammates for hugs and high-fives. A 2013 McDonald’s All-American from Bonifay, Fla., Walker has been waiting eligibility clearance from the NCAA for the past several weeks after arriving on UF's campus in December.
He got it Wednesday, effective Tuesday night when UF hosts Missouri in a 9 p.m. game on ESPN.
Good for him. Good for the Gators.
In the interim, third-ranked Florida (17-2, 6-0), the lone unbeaten team in the Southeastern Conference, has more pressing issues that have nothing to do with Walker. Namely a Thursday night game at Mississippi State (13-6, 3-3) -- with a chance to go two-games up on second-place Kentucky and Ole Miss -- followed by a quick turnaround home date Saturday against Texas A&M (12-8, 3-4).
I thank God for allowing me to stay strong thru the process , and I'm blessed to be able to make my first debut as a Florida gator Tuesday !— Chris Walker (@cwalkertime23) January 29, 2014
UF officials did not get official word from the NCAA regarding Walker’s case until a little before 3 p.m. Wednesday. The Gators hit the practice court minutes later and boarded a flight -- without Walker -- to Mississippi at 6. There has been no time to process how his addition will impact the team. And, frankly, that won’t change Thursday (game), Friday (practice and cram-course preparation for A&M) or Saturday (game), either.
“I haven’t really had a chance to confront or deal with the team on this yet,” Donovan told GatorZone.com Wednesday night after dinner at the team’s Starkville hotel. “We still have another game before that happens. But there has to be a point where I sit down with the team -- and sit down with Chris -- and talk about it.”
For those who haven’t seen Walker, here’s the scouting report:
* Picture Casey Prather’s open-floor athleticism in a 6-10 wingspan and let your imagination run wild. That’s him.
* He’s raw as far as basketball skills. Walker will shoot it around the paint, but he's got some work to do on his jumper. He can handle some in the open floor, but is not going to put it down in the halfcourt, go get his shot and beat guys off the bounce.
* The kid is light years behind being the defender Patric Young is, especially when it comes to positioning and communication, but he has a knack for protecting the rim.
* Name a team that doesn’t need talent and depth in the frontcourt. Even if it’s just 8-10 minutes a game, spelling Young here or Will Yeguete there, that’s significant. Walker needs to understand that. A rotation has been set and roles determined with a team that has won 11 straight games. He needs to buy in.
* Walker’s instincts for the game are terrific, but he’s still far behind with what the Gators run on offense and defense. He’s clearly much further along than when he touched down at UF on Dec. 14, but now that there’s a definitive date for his debut he can begin taking reps with the “blue” team (the regular rotation) at practice and the coaching staff can begin defining his role. Walker, of course, will have a say in that with how he performs.
“His athleticism is going to show up in games,” UF assistant coach Matt McCall said.
Yeah, it is.
On Tuesday, Young took a day off of practice with achy knees. That meant Walker got Young’s reps. All of them. And he got them during the brutal “444” drill that is basically four non-stop minutes of three teams of four playing press offense and defense until the buzzer sounds (losing team runs, by the way). Walker flashed several times. He also was exhausted, doubling over between reps.
“Get off your shorts, Chris!” Donovan yelled. “I need you to play through it!”
Walker had another such practice Wednesday after learning of the NCAA decision -- coincidence? -- and this time, with Young on the floor. At one point, while running “Orange” scout team against the starters, he walled off the rim on three straight possessions, altering shots by Dorian Finney-Smith, Casey Prather and Young.
Yes, he can do that.
He can also get lost at times, but that's expected. He wasn't here for some of the most critical work this team did in September and October in prepping for the season.
That said, such a rare talent parachuting into a national championship contender two-thirds through a season, yes, that is one intriguing storyline.
But with this sudden talent comes a very real dilemma.
“It’s somewhat of distraction because it’s February and you’re injecting someone into your team that has not played at all,” Donovan said. “I think when he does play Tuesday, what our guys have to understand -- and what Chris has to understand -- as much as there’s a lot of publicity and exposure surrounding him being able to play, it’s not about him. This is about our team. Our players need to have an understanding that they have to help him through this.”
Donovan has made it clear that Walker will play. The kid invested too much effort to get to UF and followed that up by practicing six weeks without any assurance that he would ever take the floor this season.
Walker earned this.
Whatever his role turns out to be will have to be earned, also.
“He continued to have faith and talk about how God had a plan for him and the plan was about being patient. For an 18-year-old kid to say those things with all this uncertainty in his life says a lot about his character and the person he is,” McCall told GatorZone.com. “We just continued to talk to him about controlling the things he could control, and the one thing he could control was bringing an effort every single day to practice; bringing a motor every day and not cluttering his mind with things going on outside of practice.”
At practice Sunday -- maybe even late night Saturday after the A&M game -- it's no longer about the clutter for Chris Walker.
For Gators fans, too.
As McCall said, “When he checks into the game, the O’Dome roof is going to blow off.”
That’s a fact.
But as Donovan said: “I don’t want him to feel like he has to come in the game and be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I’ve been downplaying his debut for a reason. He may follow a rebound with a dunk and everyone will go, ‘Wow!’ Or people may say, “All that hype was for this?’ The bottom line, it’s still about the team.”
It's a really good team that's about to get a whole lot more interesting; for its fans and its coaches.