It’s finally here. The much anticipated day is here. For Gator fans, I must be referring to national signing day and the Gators’ top ten recruiting class right?
I’m referring to the day fans have been salivating over even more than football signing day: the much anticipated debut of Chris “Sky” Walker. The McDonald’s All American forward who has had more delays starting his college basketball career than Atlanta-Hartsfield during a winter storm. The trendy Twitter hash tag #FreeChrisWalker can finally be replaced with #FreedChrisWalker.
And Gator fans can finally get a glimpse of the most talked about and anticipated athletic debut since Tim Tebow. Yes, tonight at home against Missouri, Chris Walker will finally be freed.
What will it mean for Gator fans? It means a raucous sold out O’Connell Center. It means the Rowdy Reptiles might be more boisterous than ever before a national ESPN audience with the inimitable Dick “Dickie V” Vitale handling analysis for the broadcast. It means tremendous media spotlight on the Gators’ basketball program which is #3 in the country.
What does it mean for the Gator basketball team? Brace yourself. Probably not much. Bradley Beal is the only Gator freshman in recent memory that played significant minutes and provided a major contribution his first season. And he had the benefit of preseason camp and a preconference schedule to find a comfort zone within Billy Donovan’s offensive and defensive schemes. Walker has had none of the above and with the Gators in the midst of a tough conference schedule, fan expectations need to be tempered.
“All those things that he does in getting into the game is going to be predicated on him knowing what he is doing and what he can do in terms of coverage on the defensive end of the floor,” head coach Billy Donovan said on Monday. “What we’re running on offense, post defense and those types of things. He can be the best runner in the world, the best jumper in the world or the best rebounder in the world, but if he can’t do the things inside a game plan of what we need to get done, then it becomes very difficult to play him.”
And that’s the key here. Donovan’s offensive and defensive schemes are very complex and are predicated on teamwork and communication. Regardless of how talented Walker may be, if he becomes a liability to the overall effectiveness of the schemes he becomes practically useless to the team. The Gators have worked hard all season to create cohesion and timing amongst themselves where players can count on each other and the last thing Donovan wants to do is disrupt that.
Donovan himself has tried to temper fan expectation as well. Up to now Walker has been part of a circus act as fan and media speculation concerning his suspension has risen to great heights. This creates undue expectations for fans who watch his high flying circus routine highlight videos from high school and think that it will automatically translate onto the college hardwood. They would be only partly right. He’s talented without a doubt and can do things with a basketball most players can’t. Right now though he has to compartmentalize his skills within the framework of the schemes.
“I think that the thing with Chris is that he plays with good energy,” Donovan said. “He plays with a good motor and he is athletic. He can run. He’s a good rebounder. All those things that he does in getting into the game is going to be predicated on him knowing what he is doing and what he can do in terms of coverage on the defensive end of the floor, what we’re running on offense, post defense and those types of things.”
And fans need to understand that. He’s no longer Chris Walker: “Superman”, he’s now Chris Walker: “Gator basketball player”.
“I think that there was a lot of attention on Chris [Walker] because he was not a part of our team,” Donovan said. “He was separated from our team and there was a lot of attention given to the fact of when he was going to be cleared to play. Right now, there should be no attention to Chris because it‘s about our team. He is now a part of our team. He needs to be in a role with our team that, however he can contribute and help our team, that is the most important thing.”
How much court time and “airtime” he receives starting tonight depends upon how well he fits in to the overall scheme. How well he grasps his role within that scheme and how well he responds to that.
“He understands that coming in he needs to do whatever he can do to help – whether it’s two minutes, three minutes or 20 minutes,” added Donovan. “It’s all going to be predicated on how he is doing and what he is doing to help our team – foul trouble, fatigue and those types of things. For me, Chris is no different than any member of our team right now. He’s been here for over a month. He is caught up somewhat, but is not fully caught up.”
So enjoy the debut of Chris “Sky” Walker tonight. Enjoy the festivities of another Gator home game in the O’Dome with the Rocking Rowdy Reptiles, a national ESPN audience, and Dickie V. Just don’t expect too much from Sky Walker tonight. There will be plenty more opportunities to see his high flying circus show.