The hype that built Walker into one of the top high school prospects in the country turned into lottery pick projections before he even stepped on the floor as a freshman last season. The Gators were one of the top teams in the country, but there were always the questions about how much better they would be when Walker became eligible.
Billy Donovan never bought it.
He has mentioned multiple times throughout this season and last that the former five-star recruit wouldn’t live up to the expectations that were built.
“The longer a guy is out of sight, out of mind, the more the legend grows,” Donovan said about Chris Walker. “I’m a lot better player today than I was when I actually played. It just kind of happens when you’re out of sight. For Chris, that’s what has happened. You have these unrealistic expectations that people have placed on him. It’s not Chris’ fault he is who he is.”
Walker has improved this season. There’s still frustration from the fan base that he hasn’t produced to an All-American level, but Donovan thinks the expectation level will always be higher than what Walker does on the floor. He’s averaging 5.8 points and 4.1 rebounds with a team-high 18 blocks on the season.
It’s not a stat line that has NBA scouts drooling. That comes from his athleticism. When Walker plays with energy, he flies up and down the floor blocking shots and getting his points on offensive rebounds and loose balls. He isn’t a true big man that can score with multiple moves with his back to the basket.
“When people sit there and hear that all the sudden someone is maybe a first round draft pick or a guy is a pro, people’s normal reaction is this guy should just be dominating,” Donovan said. “Chris is not being evaluating on that. People use the word potential. Eventually, potential runs out and then you’ve got to perform and you’ve got to play. That’s why I think in the NBA they call it the lottery. That’s what you’re doing. You’re taking a ticket and hoping you hit the lottery. In a lot of ways, that has nothing to do with anything.”
But Donovan clearly understands why NBA teams like Walker. When he’s active on the floor, he impacts the game with his size, length and athleticism. His high school film created false expectations that Walker would be that player for 30 minutes a game. His conditioning still isn’t to that level, but when he is on the floor, you can see his potential in spurts.
“Because he didn’t play last year and because there was so much hype, it’s impossible for him to live up to anybody’s expectations,” Donovan said. “Personally, I’ve been really proud of his growth. I’ve got to do a better job to get him to understand how to do a better job playing in and around the basket. He’s got to be doing a better job finishing plays around the basket and I’ve got to do a better job coaching that. I’ve tried to, but I’m not getting through like I need to get through. I’ve got to do a better job helping because he needs to be more efficient down there with his length, athleticism, size and those kind of things.
“I do think in my opinion where Chris Walker was a year ago to where he is now, it’s night and day. But I can’t and Chris can’t have some of these expectations be through the roof and then evaluate him and say, well, he’s not reaching or living up to these expectations.”
The next step for Walker is his conditioning and being able to stay on the floor for longer. He played 26 minutes against Louisiana-Monroe in the third game of the year, and since then, he has played 20+ minutes in just three of the 12 games he has played in.
Donovan has seen his big man get gassed and not fight through the fatigue, hurting his team and forcing the Florida coach to get Walker off the floor. There are encouraging signs though, as the sophomore’s minutes have increased in each of the last three games. He has also played at least 20 minutes in both of Florida’s SEC games this year.
If he wants to be an elite prospect or make an impact at the next level, he has to learn how to play at a high level despite being fatigued.
"The best front court players that I've had that have made the transition to the NBA and had really good success have had an unbelievable threshold for cardiovascular pain,” Donovan said. “Joakim Noah was a freak of nature when it came through running through fatigue. He never gave in. (Udonis) Haslem, (Matt) Bonner, David Lee, those guys were freaks of nature in terms of their toughness of cardiovascular toughness.”
It’s still there for Walker at times. Despite huffing and puffing with his hands on his waist, he’ll show flashes where he uses his elite athleticism to impact the game. It just doesn’t happen enough.
“Chris has these spurts, but he's got to get better at playing and sustaining intensity for longer periods of time and that starts in practice,” Donovan said. “I'm on him all the time when he gets tired he doesn't quite run the floor as hard and I'm on him, 'Chris you've gotta push through, you're not getting better when you don't push through, you have to push through.’ That has been part of the reason why his minutes were somewhat down a little bit and not play more because when he does get tired there's times things, he's unable to execute and do the things we need him to do. I think he is getting better.”