It’s safe to say that Florida’s success in 2014-15 will hinge on if former McDonald’s forward Chris Walker takes a big step forward between his freshman and sophomore year.
Gator fans saw the flashes of athletic potential — the two alley-oop dunks in his debut against Missouri, the 7 points and 3 rebounds in six minutes off the bench in UF’s Sweet 16 win over UCLA, the 5 quick points off the bench in the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game against Kentucky.
On the flip side, there were plenty of times when Walker was caught out of position defensively or out-muscled by stronger post players in the SEC.
Florida coach Billy Donovan addressed Walker’s development at the SEC spring meetings in Destin. Let’s not forget, of course, that the 6-foot-10 forward from Bonifay sat out UF’s first 21 games due to academic and NCAA issues. When Walker arrived on campus in December, he weighed just 202 pounds.
“He’s 220 right now,” Donovan said. “So he’s put on about 18 pounds since he got here in December, which is a positive. I think the biggest thing for me, expectation-wise for him, is getting him into a niche and a role of what he needs to do. And I think one of his biggest struggles last year was understanding and picking up defensive schemes.
“He was clearly a kid up in Bonifay that could stand at the rim and block shots and everybody was afraid to come in there. Now he’s guarding guys who can shoot 3-point shots, he’s guarding guys that post moves, he’s guarding different situations, he’s got to be a help defender. There have been things thrown into him that he has not really been ready for. So I think that step there defensively is going to be very, very important.”
Offensively, Donovan said he never felt Walker established an identity.
“He was too weak to play at the basket,” Donovan said. “I don’t think he had enough of a perimeter game to necessarily play on the perimeter. He’s not really a 3-point shooter and what he was was an active, bouncy, live wire, shot-blocking, running, jump athlete who I think has some skill and it can develop but he has to really narrow his focus on the things he does very well.”
Donovan said with work during the offseason, he thinks Walker will end up becoming fairly decent playing with his back to the basket.
“I do think he’ll be able to face up, put the ball on the floor a little bit, but he’s got to keep it simple for himself with how he is going to play,” Donovan said. “Even watching him last year in practice there’s things he did where I was like, ‘Chris, leave that back at Bonifay. We’re not doing it here.’ I mean he’d come down on the break and legitimately shoot a 3-point shot. Or he’d get the ball off the backboard and drive the length of the floor. I’d be like, ‘Chris, get it to a guard …’
“There’s things we’re going to let him do. But he’s so gifted and so athletic that there’s many things he can do on his own and he can make a bad play turn into a good play sometimes. So there’s going to be a lot that we have to deal with him. He’s not going to be in the same situation he was last year. He is going to be thrust into a playing situation and he’s going to have to be responsible, reliable and accountable, and I thought last year that was a hard part for him.”