Free at last… freshman sensation and former McDonald’s All American Chris Walker has finally been cleared to play by the NCAA. After sitting out the fall semester while he finished up necessary coursework to graduate high school he was cleared to enroll at Florida for the spring semester. The NCAA, however, did not clear him to play while they investigated unmentioned allegations. For Florida students, fans, and alumni, the pace of the investigation took seemingly forever. T-shirts were worn at basketball games saying “free Chris Walker” and the hashtag #FreeChrisWalker trended on Twitter for weeks.
A statement from the NCAA was released on Wednesday which announced Walker’s suspension as being 12 games total for accepting impermissible benefits from agents and other unmentioned people. He will be eligible to play on Tuesday against Missouri.
Now that Walker is cleared to play, the bigger question remains how much of an impact will he have on this Gator team which has won eleven straight games and has risen as high as #3 in the AP poll? After all, up until this month when he was cleared to practice, Walker hadn’t played competitive basketball since leading his Bonifay Holmes County high school team to a state championship last season in which he scored 30 points and had 15 rebounds in the championship game.
Donovan, himself, had cautioned fans on Monday about expecting too much from Walker when he finally does see the court.
“My biggest fear for Chris is you have a highly exposed player and sometimes when a guy isn’t playing the ‘legend of Chris Walker’ grows greater than who he really is,” Donovan said. “You know, it was the same thing with Doe Doe last year. He’s sitting out and everyone is talking about this guy like he’s Magic Johnson. And Chris Walker now is, ‘Oh my, this guy is going to end up being Kevin Garnett,’ and he’s not that.”
As great of a talent as Walker is, there is a huge leap from playing high school ball at a small panhandle school to playing competitively in the SEC. Very few freshman are able to come in and be effective right off the bat. And they have the benefit of fall camp and preseason games as well as a preconference schedule. Walker has had none of that. While he has practiced keep in mind that practice during the heart of the conference schedule is much different than in fall camp. During fall camp there is a lot more instruction than what can be given during the season. Much of practice now focuses on match-ups and correcting mistakes on the fly.
Donovan did stress that the staff has been giving him personalized instruction in an attempt to get him up to speed.
“We’re spending a lot of extra time with him,” said Donovan. “He was here this morning and he’ll be here this afternoon and we’re doing as much as we can.”
For his part, Walker appears to be picking things up and getting better prepared for his debut.
“He’s more prepared than he was a couple weeks ago,” according to Donovan. “I think the biggest adjustment he’s made is just having a better feel and understanding of what we’re doing offensively and defensively. When you walk into a situation, and we have 60 different offensive sets and he doesn’t know one of them, I mean that’s a long way to have to come. So, there’s certain concepts and things he’s got to get under belt which he has done a better job of figuring out and he’s improving on.”
Of course for Walker, it’s more than just picking up on concepts and learning his role on the team, it’s also putting on necessary weight and muscle to be competitive in the post in a very physical league. Walker was very slight when he arrived at Florida at 6’10 and barely over 200 pounds and it’s obvious he will need to bulk up to be effective. As strong and physically imposing as Patric Young is he learned quickly that the SEC is full of big, strong guys in the post who are very skilled. The type of guys Walker can expect to face in the SEC are light years from anything he faced at Bonifay. The staff has been working with him on that as well.
“I think he’s getting stronger too just being on a consistent weight-training program,” Donovan mentioned. “It’s been good. I think the education part for him on nutrition and what he’s eating has been good. So, I think he came in here at like 203 pounds, and right now he’s at about 210 or 213. He’s moving in the right direction there. He’s made some growth and some strides.”
Make no mistake, however, Walker is a supreme talent. The McDonald’s All American, one of two the Gators signed last year along with point guard Kasey Hill, is a high flying acrobat who plays above the rim. He will automatically be the most athletic big man on the Gators roster. He’s also a great rebounder. He’s 6’10 but plays bigger with his long arms and he should provide an immediate presence on the boards for the Gators who surprisingly haven’t been as dominant in that regard as their roster dictates they should be.
Those long arms and athleticism should have an immediate impact on the pick and roll. Once he sets a high screen teams should be forced to make decisions. Smaller guards will need to fight through the screen. Any switching will likely lead to easy paints in the point for Walker. His size and length should force double teams to protect the basket opening up guys like Casey Prather for backdoor cuts and outside shooters like Michael Frazier or Dorian Finney-Smith. Fans will likely see more alley oops and points from offensive rebounding. In short, what Walker should bring immediately is exactly what the Gators need right now.
As a team the Gators are playing at a high level defensively, none better than what they showcased against Tennessee holding them to 26% shooting and 1-19 from three point range. What they have lacked this season is points. Don’t get me wrong they’re getting balanced offense such as what Billy Donovan preaches religiously.
“I’ve never been a big believer of having just one guy,” Donovan said. I’ve always been a big believer, you want four to six guys in double figures. I tell our guys all the time, ‘you don’t know who’s night it’s going to be in terms of having a big offensive night.’ I just think you want to be balanced.”
For the most part, the Gators have been balanced this season. But what they need is more scoring. Too often the Gators have had long periods of limited scoring which have given opponents opportunities to make runs. Thankfully the Gator defense has been strong and has limited the amount of runs opponents have been able to mount against them. However, once they get into the NCAA tournament or in games against tougher opponents than what they’ve faced thus far in the SEC schedule, those offensive lapses could become problematic. The Gators are hoping Walker’s presence will help them manufacture more points, easy points in the paint, points which could start runs for the Gators or prevent them from opponents. If so, the Gators could very well be dangerous come tournament time.
Just don’t be in a hurry to give them the trophy just yet, however. Walker will certainly need an adjustment period. There’s also the question of how effective he will be on the defensive end. Will he be a liability? Will he upset the timing, rhythm, and cohesiveness of the Gators’ defense? Time will tell, but one thing is clear, Donovan won’t redshirt him. Questions have repeatedly been raised about that prospect with it being so late in the season and the likelihood he may not be real effective once he begins play. Donovan squashed that on Monday.
“No, I wouldn’t (redshirt Walker),” Donovan said. “And we’re going to have a situation somewhat similar to that next year with Alex Murphy who is probably going to miss the first 10 games because he transferred mid-semester and he’ll have to sit out. That could potentially happen for him. You don’t typically do it. I don’t look at Chris (Walker) missing 19 games because he wasn’t even here. He’s missed, I think from Memphis on. That’s probably a better number of games. But as long as he’s in practice every day, that’s OK. As long as we can get him enough, so-to-speak, game repetition in terms of what we’re doing out there and he’s been there and he would give us some depth in our front court. But I’m not overly worried about it. I think he’s playing well and doing well so we’ll keep him out there.”
How effective he ultimately will be remains to be seen. Suffice it to say though that fans should temper their expectations.
“I think whenever he gets able to play if that’s (savior) their expectation of Chris Walker they’re going to be very, very disappointed because he’s not that. And my biggest fear for him is there is a level of anticipation and excitement of whenever he gets cleared to play, but I hope there is at least a level of understanding in terms of how much he’s missed in terms of coming in to where he’s coming in, and if anybody is expecting him to be savior it would really be unfair. He’s got a lot of growing to do. He’s got a lot of physical growing, mental growing, he’s got to understand the college game a lot more. There’s so much that’s in front of him to get better at and I just hope people will not look at it and say, ‘wow. I was expecting something different.’ Hopefully for him, I don’t want to have to see him go through that.”
Free at last. Chris Walker is free at last. Well, at least he will be on Tuesday. And Gator fans can finally get a glimpse of the circus act they’ve been salivating over for more than a year. Just in time for a stretch run in conference play and perhaps a long run in the NCAA tourney where they have made three consecutive Elite Eight appearances. Without him, they’ve won 11 in a row, a run to #3 in the country, and a push toward a number one seed in the NCAA. With him perhaps the sky’s the limit.