Wednesday February 5, 2014For Chris Walker, small numbers, big highlights -- and perfect debut
Updated: 11:15pm, February 7
Updated: 11:15pm, February 7
(Photos by Steve Johnson and Matt Stamey)
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As freshmen coming out parties go, this one was light years from what happened at the United Center back on Nov. 12.
Remember that night in Chicago?
Kansas rolled out Andrew Wiggins and 7-footer Joel Embiid. Kentucky flashed Julius Randle, the Harrison twins, James Young and Dakari Johnson, part of what analysts were calling the greatest recruiting class in history. Duke introduced the college hoops world to Jabari Parker. ESPN’s cameras rolled, Dick Vitale gushed about “Diaper Dandys” and Twitter blew up over lottery picks in waiting.
This time last year, Chris Walker’s name was on the same lists as all those guys -- ever ranked higher than a few of those guys. The newbie on the Florida bench, who rallied academically to get enrolled at UF for the second semester and waited the last six weeks for the NCAA to sign off on his eligibility, made his debut Tuesday night in third-ranked Florida’s 68-58 comeback defeat of Missouri at a rocking O’Connell Center.
He scored four points, grabbed two rebounds, blocked two shots, fouled twice and played only seven minutes. Hardly, Parker or Wiggins or Randle numbers, but you know what?
For Walker and the Gators -- the team -- the night could not have gone more perfectly.
Yes, the thundering slams gave the 6-foot-10 rookie a jolt of confidence on a night filled with understandable internal anxiety and unrealistic pressure. But Coach Billy Donovan was not going to let the moment (specifically, the game) overwhelm this very unassuming, incredibly gifted young player; not with the Gators on a roll, playing spectacular defense and leading the Southeastern Conference by two games over Kentucky.
“I totally get that you have a high-profile kid from Florida and now the kid is out there and there’s national interest and all that,” Donovan said. “But I just felt it was important that he didn’t walk off the floor and think, ‘I was a big disappointment tonight.’ He walked out with seven minutes and he felt good about himself."
Those two dome-deafening dunks, courtesy of lob passes from Kasey Hil, helped take the edge off. Not only were they things of beauty, but they gave the rookie a jolt of confidence on a night filled with a mix of internal anxiety and unrealistic pressure; gave him a sense that he belonged.
More importantly, he helped his team; energized his team.
I will continue to emphasize "team" here because that's what Donovan and his assistants are doing every day in practice and meetings. Walker has been immersed in that team-first philosophy for six weeks without reaping any rewards of the all-for-one culture.
“I’m just glad to have it behind me,” the soft-spoken, unassuming Walker said after the game. “My coaches and teammates have kept me motivated and told me to just let it go ... and that’s what I did.”
Donovan and his staff had a plan. They knew they wanted Walker to get into the game in the first half and get a taste of it. They were not going to put too much on his plate. That the game played out as close as it did definitely helped. Donovan was not going to put Walker in situations -- not when he’s still learning the complexities of the system -- where he might be confused about an offensive or defensive set and cost his team at a pivotal time.
So Walker got a small dose of the game, yet still gave the Florida faithful -- and those incredible Rowdy Reptiles -- a night to remember with two rim-rattlers in the first half, courtesy of Hill, his former AAU teammate.
“I’ve known Kasey since the ninth grade,” Walker said. “I kind of looked in his eyes and was like, ‘Throw it up and I’ll get it.’ Brought back memories.”
Said Hill: “I’ve thrown that pass to him a bunch of times. A bunch.”
The Tigers called a timeout after the first dunk and Walker was mobbed by his teammates coming to the bench, especially the seniors that run this team. A bump from Patric Young. A scream from Scottie Wilbekin. A chest slap from Will Yeguete. An ear-to-ear grin from Casey Prather. The whole team was happy for Walker, who invested so much just to get to Florida -- a semester late, no less -- and then had to practice for six weeks with no real promise this day would ever come.
“He worked so hard to get here, so I felt so happy for him,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier said. “And those dunks were huge momentum plays for us.”
Added Young: “It was exciting to see him come out and finally get to do what he does best. He made some mistakes, but that’s expected. It was his first time out there.”
There will be lots of next times, as Walker figures to get more comfortable, more in tune with this team and more fitted to whatever role he carves out for himself.
“Now, the biggest challenge for our coaching staff is getting him more reps, more confidence and more minutes,” Donovan said. “He’s a team guy and wants to help as much as he can. Our older guys have been unbelievable with him. When you inject someone into the team this late, [other] guys can look around and say, ‘How will this affect me?’ That hasn’t happened.”
So Walker walked off the floor with a smile on his face and a fun pose for a camera stuck in his mug. He waved to the fans as they cheered his coming out party.
What in the world was going through his mind?
Said Walker: “I was thinking, that it was my first college game ... and that I did well.”
The whole team did.
And he’s part of that team now.
Feels so good to be doing the thing I love to do , most importantly good win tonight !— Chris Walker (@cwalkertime23) February 5, 2014