Walker has stepped up play in SEC

With 7:38 remaining in Saturday night’s game with LSU, the Florida Gators had the game well in hand with a 19-point lead but the visiting Tigers weren’t about to give up. They would whittle away at the lead and get it down to a more respectable 14-point deficit but they never could make that substantial run to challenge because the Gators never quit defensively.

The perfect example what the effort of sophomore point guard Erving Walker, whose three-ball with 7:38 remaining rattled out and into the hands of LSU’s Tasmin Mitchell. Mitchell put the ball on the deck for one bounce and then let loose with a baseball pass toward Bo Spencer, who leaked out on the break as soon as the ball the ball left Walker’s hand. This had the makings of a classic fast break layup except that Walker had done what every good guard is supposed to do.

When Walker saw his shot was off the mark, he sprinted back on defense. Walker looked like Reggie Nelson playing the one-high eraser role for the football team the way he timed his jump perfectly and snagged the pass intended for Spencer. Instead of giving up the easy layup, the Gators got an unexpected defensive stop.

It is that kind of hustle play that has defined Walker in his first year as a full-time point guard. As a freshman last season he played as much at the shooting guard as he did on the point. With the early departure of Nick Calathes to the Greek pro league after completing his sophomore season last March, Walker became the full-time point guard for the Gators and he’s handled the role effectively.

Through Florida’s first 17 games, Walker is averaging 12.1 points and 5.0 assists per game but in Florida’s three SEC games, he is averaging 18.7 points and 5.3 assists, plus he has knocked down 11-21 three-pointers.

While Walker doesn’t have ideal height (he’s 5-8) to go against the tall point guards in the league, he is in the process of proving that height can be over-rated if you have the quickness to compensate.

“I just try to use my quickness rather than my size and strength,” Walker said after the Gators (12-5, 1-2 SEC East) finished off LSU Saturday night. “I try to read passing lanes and shoot the gaps rather than battle with somebody physically.”

Walker’s speed on defense and shooting ability were apparent last season when he was named to the SEC All-Freshman team, but it’s been his adjustment to the point guard position that has really helped his game take off, a lot of that shows in the way he is able to distribute the ball to his teammates.

Take this into consideration. Walker finished with 14 points, six assists and three steals against the Tigers yet only two of those points came in the second half. The Gators only led by seven at halftime so you would expect Walker to come out firing. Instead he looked to get his teammates involved and only took four shots the entire second half.

“He’s gotten a lot better,” said junior forward Chandler Parsons. “Without [Nick Calathes] here he’s on the ball more, he’s making better decisions, he’s making shots, he’s playing a lot smarter and more aggressive and it’s helping our team.”

Parsons also said that Walker struggled earlier in the season because he was putting too much pressure on himself and trying to do it all. Now, he seems content with driving to the basket and dishing it out to an open Kenny Boynton or Alex Tyus.

“I just try to get my teammates involved, guys like Kenny and Chandler, who I know are going to shoot it,” Walker said. “I try to keep everybody happy and look for myself second.”

Walker’s growth goes beyond just his ability to pass the ball; it’s when to pass the ball or when to shoot. Do you slow the game down and work the shot clock or crank up the fast break? All of those factor into his decisions at the point and drastically impact the game. And, he’s really stepped his game up in SEC play.

Before league play began, Walker had hit only three of his last 21 shots from beyond the arc. Since SEC play began, he has been knocking down shots with regularity and stretching defenses, forcing them to cover well beyond the three-point line. The good shooting was expected since he hit 40 percent of his three-pointers last season. Walker has proven he’s far more than a shooter, though. His ball handling has improved and he makes excellent decisions when he’s controlling the flow of the game. Defensively, he is disruptive when the Gators full court press. He’s averaging 1.6 steals per game, best on the team.

“His role has changed from a year ago; last year he just knocked down shots for us,” Donovan said. “This year he’s got to do more things and there’s been more responsibility placed on his shoulders. I love Erving. I think in the Kentucky game he single handedly brought us back by himself.

“I think this has probably been the most challenging year of his basketball career going from a guy who can really play off Nick Calathes last year to a guy that’s got to try to run our team.”