Chris Walker came to Gainesville with loads of expectations last season. Billy Donovan warned everyone that he would be a nice piece off the bench, but that was likely it. That’s exactly how it happened.
This season, Walker has to be more than that.
His chance to prove he’s ready for it begins on Friday night at 8 p.m. when Florida hosts Louisiana-Monroe (TV: SEC Network). The expectations are still high, but Donovan thinks the sophomore center is ready to handle them.
“I think he’s done a better job of handling the expectation that are out there on him. I really think that sometimes when there’s expectations on a player, a player can get really weighed on those expectations or a player can say, ‘There’s no way I can reach that expectation of what’s expected of me.’ I think for Chris, maybe early in the year he was wrapped up in those things. Now, I’ve seen a growth in him where he’s gotten back down to reality of, ‘I need to get better. I need to improve. I need to figure out a way to help our team.’
“My thing for him tomorrow is just to go out there and to have both feet in a circle and to do the things we need him to do, to help us be a better team. That’s what I would say.”
Donovan wasn’t sure about his potential starting lineup for Friday. Dorian Finney-Smith remains out with two hairline fractures in his hand, and the Gators aren’t sure if he’ll be ready to play when they head to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis next week.
Jacob Kurtz earned his first career start against Miami as the power forward, and Jon Horford started at center. Donovan said they have practiced with Horford and Walker on the floor together. In that scenario, Horford would play power forward and Walker would play center.
Last year, Walker forced his offense at times and took bad shots. Donovan has seen him mature out of that mentality this season.
"He's gotten away from this idea that he needs to be this scorer,” Donovan said. I think he's playing closer to his strengths and I think we as a coaching staff have tried to help him see that.”
Donovan wants Walker to play with the same mentality Patric Young did last season. When didn’t look for points or get frustrated when the ball didn’t find him in the post. Instead, he bought into Donovan’s message to run the floor, rebound, be a presence at the basket and chase the basketball on the offensive glass.
After Patric Young had 14 points and 13 rebounds in a summer league game with the New Orleans Pelicans, Donovan laughed when Young told reporters that the Pelicans’ coaches told him to just “run the floor and rebound.”
The hope is that Walker will find that same understanding this season and impact the game with his athleticism.
“Inside the framework of what we're doing, this needs to be (Walker’s) identity,” Donovan said. “That's where he can help us playing to his strengths."