Now that the ordeal to get Chris Walker eligible is over, Billy Donovan’s next task is to temper expectations, which are building like a tsunami for the very talented 6-10 McDonald’s All-American who makes his Florida basketball debut Tuesday night when the 3rd-ranked Gators (19-2, 8-0 SEC) face Missouri (16-5, 5-3 SEC) at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center (9 p.m., ESPN).
Walker hasn’t played a competitive game since last March when he led Holmes County to the Florida State1A championship but he won the McDonald’s Slam Dunk competition on national television. Fans tend to remember the spectacular performance. Donovan remembers what happened yesterday in practice.
“I get a lot of people being enthusiastic or excited about him having the chance to play,” Donovan said. “It’s like I said earlier, the expectations on him as a player are way, way up here, and he can’t reach them. He can’t. I just want people to know. This is not going to be a guy that tomorrow you’re going to say, ‘Billy, you really, really downplayed this thing. This guy came out and played like Wilt Chamberlain!’ It’s not going to happen.
“He’s a good player that’s got a lot in front of him, a lot of growing and maturing that’s got to go on. I really don’t know how much he can [do]. He can go in there and do some really, really good things and really help our team or he could go out there and really be lost in the game and get going too fast and the emotion of the game will overwhelm him and he’s so excited.”
In terms of raw physical skills, Walker is one of the most talented kids Donovan has ever recruited, but while the typical freshman gets Summer B, fall practice and perhaps a few games against lighter competition during the non-conference portion of the schedule, Walker has only been on campus since the day after the fall semester ended. He has had a little more than a month and a half to grow accustomed to a class schedule, get on a nutrition and conditioning plan, learn new skills while polishing others, learn the offensive and defensive sets and play a role in helping the Gators prepare for their next game as part of the scout team in practice.
It’s a lot to absorb and when you add in starting your college career against a team as capable as Missouri with the level of excitement of finally playing after going through such an ordeal, it is completely understandable why Donovan downplays the high expectations.
“I know he’s anxious, I know he’s excited but I don’t think Chris Walker’s expectations tomorrow are to walk out there, play 30 minutes and start,” Donovan said. “To his credit, he’s taken the approach of whatever I can do to help the team. Hopefully he’ll be able to do that in one way or another, in how many minutes or what role, I don’t know that right now. Certainly, with a guy like Will Yeguete, Patric Young, Dorian Finney-Smith and Casey Prather, we have some veteran guys that have kind of been through it a little bit. You don’t know about fatigue, injury, foul trouble and how he may be used in the game. I’m not trying to downplay Chris Walker. I’m excited for him, but this is not about him now. This is about our team playing Missouri tomorrow, and that’s where our focus needs to be.”
What has helped Walker’s progress is that he came to Gainesville with a humble, what can I do to help the team attitude. That’s important because it’s not like the Gators have been struggling without Walker. They’re ranked third in the country but that doesn’t mean they have all the answers.
Walker doesn’t have to be the answer, just a part that fits the puzzle perfectly.
“He needs to be in a role with our team that however he can contribute and help our team that’s the most important thing,” Donovan said. “He’s a humble kid. He understands that coming in he has to do whatever he can to help, whether that’s three minutes, two minutes, ten minutes or twenty minutes. It’s all going to be predicated on how he’s doing and what he’s doing to help our team with foul trouble, fatigue and those things.”
That Walker is a humble kid resonates with senior center Patric Young, who sees the situation from a different perspective than most. Like Walker, Young was a McDonald’s All-American. When he came to Florida the talk was that he could be a one-and-done but certainly wouldn’t be on campus more than two years.
Young fully understands when expectations and reality are ships passing in the night, which makes him appreciate Walker’s ability to leave his ego parked at the door.
“The one thing that’s really exciting about Chris is just how humble and how likable of a guy he is,” said Florida’s senior center Patric Young, who understands quite well since he was a McDonald’s All-American four years ago. “A guy that can come in as a McDonald’s All-American and all the accolades he has could come in here and have a little bit of an ego, but it hasn’t been like that with him at all.”
When Young came to Florida he had seniors Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus ahead of him. Young learned a few lessons that he and fellow seniors in the front court Casey Prather and Will Yeguete are willing to pass on to Walker.
But even with seniors there to guide him, Young says he still had to learn to tune out a lot of people who weren’t connected to the Florida basketball program.
“What helped me was having good leadership under Vernon, Chandler and Alex, being able to learn from those guys,” Young said. “The #1 thing is to be coachable. That’s the most important thing. Don’t think you have all the answers. I think I may have been guilty of that my freshman year, having expectations, listening to people outside of this program. They are going to tell you what you can do, what you should do, what you need to do. But all you need to do is listen to the coaches and come in here with a good attitude.”
Young has spent four years improving in every facet of his game. He’s now recognized as one of the best defensive players in the country and in the past month has shown off an improved offensive game. He got to this point in his career by being coachable and making sure he was a lunch pail guy who came to work every day.
In the six weeks he’s been with the Florida program, Young has seen Walker develop on a daily basis and he likes what he’s seen.
“He’s been very coachable,” Young said. “I think he’s starting to realize what it looks like to have the work ethic, something he probably didn’t have to worry about back at home. He probably didn’t have the resources available that he does now. He’s been working a lot harder and getting a lot better. A lot has been thrown at him as a freshman. His mind was spinning. He had two workouts a day and individuals and film, but he’s done a really good job of just taking it all in.”