All eyes on Walker

The hype followed Chris Walker to Gainesville last December.

Before he got to campus last year, a Florida team full of veterans was getting healthy and players were returning off suspension. The Gators didn’t need Walker last season to put together a successful season. He helped the team off the bench and provided some competitive minutes in the paint, but the impact wasn’t what he was hyped to be.

That’s not Walker’s fault. The expectations got out of control, and the former five-star recruit was hyped into being a mix between Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard.

None of that talk came from inside the Florida basketball offices. In fact, Florida coach Billy Donovan warned of expectations being too high for Walker in almost every press conference while they waited for Walker to be cleared by the NCAA. The veteran Florida coach downplayed what kind of impact Walker would be able to make when joining the team in the middle of the season, and Donovan was exactly right.

The freshman was in a unique situation. His college debut was delayed first by academics and then by a suspension for accepting impermissible benefits. Once he got on the floor, the impact wasn’t what people outside the program expected, but he kept a great attitude and didn’t complain about his situation.

“He was an unbelievable teammate last year in understanding the fact he missed so much of the summer, non conference,” Donovan said. “When he came there, he never, ever once complained about playing time. He wanted to do whatever he could do to help.”

That could’ve been the end of his time in Gainesville. Walker had the chance to close out his 18-game career at Florida, move onto the NBA and be a first-round pick based solely on his athleticism and leaping ability. He admitted to thinking about it, but there was still more to accomplish in Gainesville for himself and for the team.

“I was thinking about it but I sat down with coach and my family, and we just talked about it,” Chris Walker said. “I need more strength, and that’s why I came back.”

This season, it’s not about helping teammates in practice or accepting a bench role. Walker is again facing a suspension to start the year -- this time he’ll miss three games for a violation of team rules. When he returns, the Gators will need him to get closer to his potential for the team to have a shot-blocking presence near the rim.

But there are questions surrounding Walker’s production and how close he’ll be able to get to his potential this year.

“I don't know what kind of impact he's going to make,” Donovan said. “I think that he's going to have to really be able to handle (expectations). He's got his own personal expectation of where he thinks he should be. If he's not at that level, how is he going to handle that?

“I think that's one of the most difficult things to deal with as a coach, is when you have players with individual expectations that don't get met with how they're performing. He's got to have a realistic expectation. He's got a long way to go.”

The first thing that has to happen is off the court and in the weight room. Walker needed to bulk up during the offseason. He won’t be the physical monster Patric Young has been for the last four years in the paint, but the sophomore needed to gain weight in the offseason after his freshman year and did. He’s practicing now between 222-225 pounds and feels stronger after working with strength and condition coordinator Preston Greene.

On the court, there’s plenty to dream about, especially for NBA scouts. Walker bounces off the floor to block shots or dunk, and he runs the floor with the fluidity of a guard. However, he’s still raw on the offensive end of the floor.

“He's a terrific athlete,” Donovan said. “He's got a really good motor. He tries to go rebound and chase balls on the glass. He's a good shot blocker. I think he's very quick off the dribble. He actually can drive the ball some from the perimeter.

“But he's not a great jump shooter. He is not a great back to the basket player. He is not a guy you can just throw the ball to and he can go get you a bucket. I do think there's a lot of value he can bring into our team.”

Walker doesn’t have a go-to move in the post. He’ll have to use his athleticism to get around defenders -- Donovan even noted he could take big men off the dribble if he catches the ball on the perimeter -- and his ability to score needs to improve. The sophomore said he spent significant time in the offseason improving his footwork and developing a hook shot to help him score.

“My post game is way better than it was last year,” Walker said. “I’ve been working out with Jon Horford and all the coaches.”

The truth is, the Gators won’t throw the ball down to Walker in the post and expect him to win in one-on-one situations. That’s not the kind of player he is. His points can come off loose balls, in transition or after grabbing offensive rebounds, as long as he stays active in the paint and around the rim.

Donovan wants his big man to bring that energy every game, but he also has to prove he can be a more trusted part of the team on the floor.

“He has such a long way to go in terms of being reliable, accountable and disciplined,” Donovan said. “Those would be the three things I would say I don't have a real good grasp on right now, but we're going to find out. Him being reliable on the court, to be able to do his job, him being responsible as it relates to his work ethic each and every day, understanding his role -- those are going to be some things where I think he's going to have to battle some of those expectations part of it because certainly he has been billed and hyped up.”

Walker’s teammates rave about his progress. They see him in the weight room and on the practice floor, working on different parts of his game to help him make more of an impact this season. His natural athleticism is enough to turn heads when he lifts off the ground for a dunk or goes up to block a shot, and they’ve seen enough of it during individual workouts or practices to know what Walker is capable of.

“Chris has been great,” Florida guard Michael Frazier said. “He’s been nothing but a good teammate, been working hard, so I’m happy for him and ready to see what he can do. He can be really good. He’s definitely got more strength. That’s going to help him on the court; he’s not going to get pushed around. He’s also a great athlete, as you guys know. I’m just happy for him and ready to see what he can do this season.”

Dorian Finney-Smith added, “He can be much better because he got stronger. Chris is a great athlete. Even if he didn’t add that weight, he still would’ve been good. Chris can be unbelievable, just a great player.”

The loss of four seniors from last year’s team opens a leadership void on this year’s team, and Walker can be part of filling that. This year’s team won’t match the consistency from last season, which ended with a 36-3 record ad 17-0 record at home, but they have the pieces to put together another strong year and make a run at the program’s fifth straight Elite Eight.

“I think we’ll be more athletic,” Walker said. “All we’ve got to do is get joined and get connected like we were last year. I feel like if we can do that, the sky is the limit.”

For the team and Walker.

TAILGATER Wooden Ice Chest Giveaway

Fightin Gators Top Stories