No one can deny the physical gifts.
They were on display in last year’s Sweet 16, when talented but little-used freshman forward Chris Walker used his rangy 6-foot-10 frame to finish with 7 points, 3 rebounds and a blocked shot off the bench against a UCLA team with three NBA first round draft picks. There was Walker gliding down the court for a dunk in transition and following up his own missed free throw with a rebound and putback.
But now, as a sophomore, Chris Walker needs to grow up. And fast. Walker let his team down with an undisclosed violation of team rules that will sideline him for the first three games of the season (one preseason game and games vs. William & Mary and Miami). The small-town kid from Bonifay is 19, old enough to vote and serve his country. He’s old enough to play in the NBA, but opted to return to UF. He made a commitment to the Gators for at least one more season and needs to steer clear of any more problems that could sideline him for future games.
Make no mistake, Walker is the most talented player on UF’s roster. But without direction, the talent of the former McDonald’s All-American could go to waste, and Florida’s hopes of another deep run in the NCAA Tournament could vanish. Walker offered a series of one-sentence answers during a quick three-minute interview session during UF basketball media day. He didn’t shed much light on the reason for his suspension, said his post game has improved and said he wants to lead by example.
Former ESPN.com basketball recruiting analyst Dave Telep, now a scouting director with the San Antonio Spurs, first warned me about Walker’s immaturity when he committed to UF in 2012. And here’s what former Florida standout center Patric Young said when I asked about Walker during the offseason:
“I think he’s got a way to go, honestly,” Young said. “Mentally, he’s got some more maturing that he needs to do. We’ll see how he ends up. I trust Coach (Billy) Donovan, he knows what he’s doing. He’s going to be able to take care of business and get the guys focused on the right things.
“We’ll see how it ends up. I’m really excited for those guys next year. I think Chris is going to have to lift himself up and be more of a man. Since I’m not there to hold his hand and try to walk him down the right path, he’s going to have to figure out a lot of things for himself.”
Donovan credited Walker for being a great teammate who accepted a reduced role despite coming in as a heralded freshman. But like Telep and Young, Donovan raised questions about Walker’s maturity.
“When he came there, he never, ever once complained about playing time,” Donovan said. “He wanted to do whatever he could do to help. You hear all these expectations and people look at the fact that he’s gotten physically strong and everything else. He has such a long way to go in terms of being reliable, accountable and disciplined. 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.”
Donovan said he’s never encountered a player who came in at midseason with bigger expectations than Walker.
“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 that, where he’s got maybe 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.”