Monday, there were no hints about the status of Chris Walker, whose eligibility hinges on a decision by the NCAA, but Billy Donovan’s tone was positive and upbeat, more so than in past weeks about the 6-10 freshman who has been enrolled since the end of the fall semester but has been unable to see the court.
Walker has been going to class and going through a full basketball regimen that includes weights, nutrition, individual instruction and practice with the team in preparation for a ruling that was expected weeks ago. When the 4th-ranked Gators (17-2, 6-0 SEC) take the court at the O-Dome, Walker is sitting at the end of the bench in sweats along with injured teammates Eli Carter and Dillon Graham and transfer Alex Murphy.
With a third of the Southeastern Conference schedule already played, Florida faces a six-week, 12-game grind to end the regular season. That will be followed by the SEC and, barring an unforeseen collapse, the NCAA Tournaments, so Walker could play in as many as 21 games if he receives a ruling prior to Thursday’s trip to Mississippi State.
Walker has not played in a game that counted since last March when he led Holmes County to the Florida 1A championship. Because he was unable to enroll in August, he missed work in the weight room and conditioning. Since enrolling in December he’s been catching up on offensive and defensive terminology and sets that teammates have been working on since practice began back in October.
He’s come a long way since December and Donovan says Walker has enough of a grasp of what the Gators are doing that when he’s eligible, “I’m gonna play him.”
Since arriving on campus, Walker has added 10 pounds of muscle – Donovan says he was 203 when he arrived – through work in the weight room and getting on an adequate nutrition plan. He’s been learning the offensive and defensive sets on the fly at practice every day. There is no shortage of assistance from the coaching staff or from teammates.
“When you walk into a situation where we have 60 different offensive sets and he doesn’t know one of them I mean that’s a long way to have to come so there’s certain concepts and things that he’s got to get under his belt which he’s done a better job of figuring out and improving on but you know we’re spending a lot of extra time with him,” Donovan said. “He was in here this morning he’ll be in here this afternoon and we’ll do as much as we can, but I think having a better feel and understanding for what we’re doing has been the biggest jump that he’s made.”
Walker has an enormous upside. He is a legitimate 6-10 who is still growing and filling out his long, skinny frame. He can run the floor, jump and has a tremendous sense of timing as a shot blocker. He won the McDonald’s All-American dunk contest last year but he also has range out to the 3-point line with his jump shot.
He has the tools to play at a very high level, but Donovan warns not to expect Walker to play like a hall of famer from the moment he steps on the court for the first time.
“My biggest fear for Chris is you have a highly explosive player and sometimes when the guy’s not playing, the legend of Chris Walker grows greater than who he really actually is,” Donovan said. “It’s the same thing with Doe-Doe (Dorian Finney-Smith) last year. He’s sitting out, and everyone’s talking about this guy like he’s Magic Johnson. Chris Walker now, it’s like, my god, this guy is going to end up being Kevin Garnett. I mean, he’s not that. And I think if anybody, whenever he gets able to play, if that’s your expectation of Chris Walker, then you’re going to be very, very disappointed because he’s not that.”
Donovan is very protective of Walker and with good reason. He is a kid who has gone through an ordeal with the NCAA that wasn’t of his making and it has set him back in terms of his development as a basketball player.
So Donovan almost pleaded for patience and understanding.
“He’s got a lot of growing to do,” Donovan said. “He’s got a lot of physical growing, mental growing. He’s got to understand the college game a lot more. There’s so much that’s in front of him to try and get better at. I just hope that people will not look at it and say ‘wow. I was expecting something different.’ And hopefully, for him, I don’t want to see him have to go through that.”
When Walker does play, Donovan anticipates that Walker will have to deal with the typical freshman jitters. Judging from the positive, upbeat tone with which he spoke Monday, it would seem that Donovan expects that Walker will be dealing with the hitters sooner and not later.
Again, there were no hints that Donovan knows exactly when Walker will get cleared, but this was the most positive the Florida coach has been since it was announced that Walker had been admitted to the university.
“I’m sure he’ll be very anxious and nervous and excited,” Donovan said. “How many minutes we could actually get out of him I’m not really sure but he’s a really, really good kid that’s worked hard and he’s eager to learn and get better and I appreciate just the way he’s handled himself in a very difficult situation.”