UF recruit Walker has eye on future
The Panhandle superstar hints at playing only a year in Gainesville, and then entering the draft.
Published: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 13, 2012 at 11:43 p.m.
BONIFAY — The queen will have her palace.
So says the prince, who in this fairy tale is Holmes County's Chris Walker, a 6-foot-9 forward who has verbally committed to Billy Donovan's team at the University of Florida.
Walker is recognized as one of the premier recruits in the country, rated seventh nationally by ESPN.com and sixth by Rivals.com. His athleticism is otherworldly compared to most 17-year-olds, and he fully expects to hear NBA commissioner David Stern call his name as a lottery selection in the league's 2014 draft.
“NBA draft people have said I'm like a sick mix of Kevin Garnett and Perry Jones III,” Walker said.
High praise that may be, but don't describe it as unfounded. Walker only now is beginning to tap into his limitless potential, and his skills have improved exponentially since he led Holmes County to the Region 2-1A semifinals last winter. Playing alongside future Gator teammate Kasey Hill on the Florida Elite AAU team throughout the summer, Walker was forced to step up his game playing against the country's best players in tournaments stretching from Atlanta to Las Vegas.
Walker learned something about himself in the process. It's one thing to overwhelm opponents at a rural public school in the smallest high school classification in Florida. It's another to dominate against college recruits headed to national powers such as Kentucky, Louisville and Kansas.
“I really built up my confidence two months ago,” he said. “That was my first look at how good I can really be.”
Walker has lived his entire life in Bonifay, a central Northwest Florida community boasting fewer than 2,800 residents. That he will finish his prep career in a Blue Devils uniform is remarkable in its own right considering he has resisted overtures from some of the premier prep schools in the nation. Walker turned down Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, a program unrivaled in its ability to produce NBA-caliber talent. He declined a chance to play at Montrose Christian School in Maryland, the same program that helped Kevin Durant harness the skills that would turn him into the most lethal scorer in professional basketball.
“What I want to do is be my own guy,” said Walker, who turns 18 on Dec. 22. “I wanted to show them A.I.P. — anything is possible. I wanted to stay in Bonifay. I turned down 30 offers and stuck with my home team. Even if you're at a little school, you can do your own thing and go for it.”
Walker's mother, Jeneen Campbell, is a single parent living on disability. Walker acknowledged that life never has been easy, and he said he draws strength from watching his mother battle through her own adversity.
“My mom truly is my backbone,” he said. “She's at every game. She's like my queen. I've got to take care of her, and I want her not to have to do anything. … It increases my drive to make my dreams come true. I want her to have her own castle.”
Walker has found a father figure in Holmes County coach Po White, who said he never has treated Walker any differently from the other players in the Blue Devil program.
“We established trust with one another, and we've built a great rapport with one another,” White said. “He is able to come to me when he's having a difficult situation. That comes with the trust we've developed with one another, and it says a lot about him and the decision he made” to stay.
An easy decision
Give Donovan credit. When he wants a player, he doesn't hide it.
“Billy Donovan came to a lot of my high school games, my workouts and every game in July,” Walker said. “He could've watched some of the other top players, but he came to watch me. Every single game. We could be playing a sorry team, and there he was watching.”
Walker announced his decision to play at Florida in a four-minute video posted on YouTube. The first 2½ minutes of that video consist of a highlight reel featuring windmill dunks, Walker-led fast breaks, 3-point shots and several scenes of Walker blocking shots with his long arms. In short, he looked little like the high school junior last winter who often was satisfied with a layup attempt instead of trying to throw down a dunk on a lesser opponent.
That Chris Walker exists no more.
“Me now, I'm a high motor for my team,” Walker said. “I can lead a team now. With my skill set, I can play outside or inside, I can post up. I can defend and guard (all five positions), and that's because of the athleticism I have.”
Walker expressed his eagerness to continue playing with Florida Elite teammate Hill, a point guard who also has committed to Florida. He believes the duo will bring its own version of Lob City — the moniker handed down to Chris Paul and high-flying Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers — to Gainesville and the O'Connell Center.
“We know each other, and we know what we've got to do,” he said.
The decision to verbally commit to Florida early takes the pressure off Walker as he prepares for his final season at the high school level. He said he intends to focus on the classroom more than he ever has before (he stressed that his grades won't raise any red flags) and wants to lead the Blue Devils to their first state championship.
“Florida can watch and see how my grades are,” Walker said, “and make sure I'm in shape.”
One and done
Basketball fans at Florida unhappy to see shooting guard Bradley Beal depart for the NBA after one season at UF may be disappointed to learn that Walker fully intends to leave Florida after one year, too.
“Coach (Donovan) said where my skill level is, if that's what I want I should go for it,” Walker said. “What I keep hearing is that I'm a potential lottery pick. But I'm not satisfied.”
Walker expects a steep learning curve from the high school level to the upper echelon of major college basketball, and he is aware that the NBA is another giant leap forward after that. The pace at which his game is improving suggests he will be ready to meet that challenge. Walker said Donovan told him he believes Walker can play small forward or power forward at the college level. He wants to avoid the “tweener” label that has dogged many college players making the jump to the NBA, but he believes his all-around ability will afford him a chance to play either position professionally.
“I can shoot 3s now,” Walker explained. “I can finesse you. I can dunk on you. I can guard anything, and I'm rebounding better. When I block shots I catch the ball. I can post you up with my back to the basket and hit you with a post move. Or I can face you up and use my quickness to blow by you.”
Walker readily admits he has to spend more time in the weight room, and he said he is working hard to improve his ball-handling ability. White said Walker's shot remains a work in progress but is improving steadily.
While Walker has room for improvement, it's easy to forget he won't play his first game in a Florida uniform for another 15 months. That time will prove valuable as he figures out just what kind of basketball player he wants to be.
“I'm my own guy,” he said. “People ask me who I play like. I tell them ‘Chris Walker.' ”
You can reach News-Herald sports writer Jason Shoot at 747-5069 or email@example.com