Chris Walker’s return gives Donovan front court options

Chris Walker ended all the speculation Wednesday when he announced via Twitter and to Billy Donovan that he indeed will return to the University of Florida for his sophomore season. Although he played sparingly after finally being declared eligible by the NCAA, Walker’s freakish athletic ability and size (he’s 6-10 and still growing) would have made him a likely first rounder in the June NBA Draft although not a lottery pick.

By electing to return, Walker will have an opportunity to improve his skill set and get physically stronger and more durable, which could very well elevate him into the 2015 NBA lottery picture. Currently, Walker is a skinny 217 pounds. He has the frame to handle 25-30 more pounds easily without losing the quickness or leaping ability that make him such an intriguing prospect with the NBA scouts.

Walker’s return also solidifies what promises to be an outstanding front line rotation for the Gators next season. Florida’s run to the Final Four in this recently completed season is all the more remarkable when you consider the Gators weren’t the tallest or deepest team in the front court. That won’t be a problem next year.

The Gators will have a tall and versatile front court rotation next year that starts with Dorian Finney-Smith, the 2014 Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year in 2014. Finney-Smith will move into the starting rotation at either small forward or power forward depending upon matchups or whether Billy Donovan wants to go big or go athletic in his lineup.

In addition to Walker and Finney-Smith, Donovan will have at his disposal 6-10 Damontre Harris, who finished second in the SEC in blocked shots in 2012 when he was the starting center at South Carolina; 6-9 Alex Murphy, the Duke transfer who could get a waiver that will allow him to play immediately rather than wait until the second semester; and 6-9 Devin Robinson, an incoming freshman who ESPN rated the 23rd best prospect in the country in its final Top 100 ratings for 2014.

Additionally, the Gators will have 6-6 DeVon Walker, who is capable of playing all three perimeter positions, and incoming freshman Brandone Francis, a 6-6, 220-pounder who can also play multiple positions but has the strength and ball handling to be a tough matchup at the small forward.

There is also the possibility that the Gators will sign Tre Mourning (6-10, 225, Miami, FL Ransom Everglades), son of former Georgetown and NBA great Alonzo Mourning, recently named to the next class of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Mourning will decide soon between the Gators and Georgetown, Alonzo’s alma-mater.

Harris is a pure low post, a volume shot blocker whose best offensive skills are in close or cleaning up around the rim. In Chris Walker, Finney-Smith, Murphy and Robinson, Donovan will have four versatile bigs who can play multiple positions.

Chris Walker can stretch a defense all the way out to the 3-point line although he’s more comfortable in the mid-range. He has the quickness and ball handling skills to take the ball at the high post or the wing and drive it to the rack. Finney-Smith was Florida’s top rebounder last season and he’s a natural at the high post but if he can regain the consistency with his 3-point shot, Donovan might be tempted to play him on the wing.

Murphy doesn’t have the range of older brother Erik, who started two seasons for the Gators as a stretch four, but he’s got a better power game on the inside and he’s very capable of knocking down midrange shots and taking an occasional 3-pointer. Robinson is likely to be a hybrid small/power forward, at least until he adds some weight and strength to his skinny (190 pounds) but long frame.

When Devon Walker and Francis come into the game, there are added options and Donovan has always liked a lineup that forces teams to defend the perimeter. With Michael Frazier able to guard a small forward, Donovan will have the option of adding Eli Carter, who took a medical redshirt this season after transferring from Rutgers where he scored 799 points in two years, to the lineup to balance the floor with shooters on either side of point guard Kasey Hill. The Gators will also return 6-4 Dillon Graham, who missed 2014 due to surgery on both hips, and will welcome incoming freshman point guard Chris Chiozza (5-10).

It all adds up to the most front court depth and lineup options that the Gators have had since the 2010-11 season when they had Chandler Parsons, Vernon Macklin, Alex Tyus, Erik Murphy, Patric Young and Will Yeguete at their disposal.

The Gators have already been picked in the preseason top 10 of (#5) and ESPN (#8).

Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.