As the clock wound down to its final six minutes Thursday night, Erving Walker began an Incredible Hulk-like transformation that turned the Arkansas Razorbacks and the 14,000 fans at Bud Walton Arena into the latest believers. Walker is listed at 5-8, which is generous and typically makes him the smallest man on the court. Yet when a game is on the line and the Florida Gators have to find a way to win, Walker’s game seems to make him 10-feet tall.
That’s the way it was in Fayetteville in the final 6:04 when Walker nailed the lid on the Arkansas coffin by scoring nine of Florida’s final 15 points with four straight never touch the iron free throws, a floater in the lane and a bomb of a three-ball from maybe 25 feet away. For good measure he threw in a slick pass that was finished off with a vicious dunk by Vernon Macklin and he outhustled the big guys for an offensive rebound that a few seconds later he converted into that high-arcing three-ball that nearly came down wet.
It’s not like Walker was in a coma in the game’s first 34 minutes. He shot the Gators back into the game in the first half when it looked like Arkansas was on the verge of running Florida out of the gym and he got the second half started with another one of those laser-guided threes that seemed to knock the bottom out of the net. He had 15 at the half, a career-high 27 for the game and contributed another three rebounds, four assists and a steal to the Gators’ game-winning effort.
Coming up big when the Gators need him most has is becoming the new M.O. for Walker, who becomes one cool customer when the pressure is ratcheted up a few notches. He scored 12 points in the second half to lead the Gators to a 77-72 win over then second-ranked Michigan State in Atlantic City back in November. Although his shot wasn’t falling with any regularity, he scored when it mattered and delivered six assists and four steals to help put the Gators in position for Chandler Parsons’ 70-foot miracle three to win the game against North Carolina State in Raleigh.
Although the Gators lost their SEC home opener to Kentucky, Walker hit four straight threes that enabled Florida to come back from a 15-point deficit into a 72-72 tie with 5:41 remaining. Kentucky pulled away in the final five minutes but Walker certainly made his presence known.
In Florida’s four SEC games, Walker is 16-27 (59.7 percent) on three-pointers and he’s averaging 20.3 points per game. He has become Florida’s go-to guy, quite a contrast from so many games early in the season when he was throwing up Scuds from the outside. In the four games prior to the first SEC game (at Vanderbilt), Walker was 3-21 from beyond the arc, uncharacteristic for a pure shooter who hit 40 percent as a true freshman last year.
It took time watching film to figure out what was wrong with his outside shot.
“Before the Vanderbilt game, Coach (Billy Donovan) and I watched some film and ever since then they’ve been pretty good,” Walker said Friday. “I was shooting off balance so I was trying to focus going straight up and down.”
Among the subtleties of great outside shooting are flexed knees that allow the legs to provide the power for the shot and going straight up and coming straight down on the jump. When jump shooters drift left or right or lean forward as they release, shots tend to clang on the iron.
Taught by his dad to shoot when he was barely big enough to heave the ball to the rim, Walker has always had the leg drive which is why it seems he’s in range any time he crosses midcourt. Against Arkansas, ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes kept raving about the way Walker bends his knees and lets his legs power his jumpers.
“I just always bent my knees I guess when I shot the ball — that’s how I was taught — but it’s not like it was beaten into my head,” Walker said. “It’s kind of natural.”
On the court maturity also played a role in busting the shooting slump. Early in the year, Walker was using his quickness to beat opposing guard off the bounce, but once he got past them and into the foul lane, he was in no-man’s land. Too often, he tried to initiate contact to draw fouls but if there was no whistle he was caught off-balance and his shots were too often altered or blocked.
Figuring out when to penetrate and how to stay under control was a lesson learned on the fly.
“Last year [as a freshman] he was primarily a spot up shooter for us,” Donovan said. “Now what he’s doing is he’s learning when to drive, when not to drive; when to try to go all the way to the rim and when not to go to the rim; when he’s got to pull up and when he’s got to pass. I think early in the year part of the reason his shooting percentage was so low year is I felt when he did get into the lane, he tried to make things happen by drawing fouls and took a lot of difficult off-balance shots. I think he has eliminated some of those shots, which has enabled him to be a more efficient point guard making decisions and making passes and understanding when to shoot and when not to shoot.”
Walker might have learned his lessons the hard way but once the lesson has been learned with new habits replacing the old ones, good things have happened. He is shooting with plenty of confidence and staying focused on doing everything fundamentally right, starting with going straight up and straight down on every shot without a hint of drift.
As a result he’s shooting with tremendous confidence, something teammates are noticing. They have so much confidence in him, they want Walker to make something happen when a game is on the line.
“He’s been playing unbelievable,” Chandler Parsons said. “Last night [against Arkansas] when we needed a bucket the ball was in Erving’s hands and he came through for us.”
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For a change Saturday night, Walker will get to go against somebody his own size in South Carolina’s Devan Downey, who is making a strong case for SEC Player of the Year honors. Listed at 5-9 (closer to 5-7) Downey leads the Gamecocks (11-7, 2-2 SEC East) in scoring at 21.2 points per game but ever since center Mike Holmes was dismissed from the team, he’s taken it upon himself to keep South Carolina in the game. In SEC play, Downey is averaging 30.3 points per game.
The Walker-Downey matchup will pit the SEC’s hottest scorer (Downey) against the league’s hottest three-point shooter (Walker). Walker matched up with Downey twice last season and he’s got plenty of respect for the Gamecock star.
“He’s real quick and he can get his shot off on anybody even though he’s short,” Walker said. “He gets in the lane and just makes plays. He’s really crafty with the ball.”
Downey doesn’t have the consistency from long range like Walker, but he does get on streaks when it seems he can’t miss. When he’s not hitting from the outside, Downey tends to put the ball on the deck and get into the lane. Even though he’s so small, he rarely gets his shot blocked even when he’s among the big guys.
Donovan says Downey is one of the toughest matchups in the SEC because his offensive game is so versatile.
“The one thing that really creates a problem with Downey is he can shoot very deep three-point shots; he has a great pull-up game when he gets in the lane and stops and can step back on you,” Donovan said. “He’s got a high release that’s hard to get to. Then he is a guy that at his size he becomes bigger when he gets into the lane. When he gets into the lane, he gets bigger. He gets fouled; he gets to the rim; he finishes. So he’s really got a game where offensively there’s not a whole lot of weaknesses. He can do everything. If you back off he can shoot threes. If you get up on him he can go by you. If you force him to get to the rim, he can get fouled. It’s a heckuva challenge and there’s a reason he’s getting 30 a game in the league.”
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Donovan said he expects 6-10 sophomore center Kenny Kadji will have back surgery soon. Kadji, who has a bulging disk that has inflamed a nerve, has taken a series of injections in an attempt to relieve the pain and numbness that goes all the way down his leg. With no relief in sight from the injections, however, Donovan said it’s time to come to grips with the fact the big sophomore will have to have surgery that eliminates any possibility that he will be able to play the rest of the season. Kadji played only 45 minutes total and hasn’t seen any action since December 19 against Richmond.