On Tuesday night, for the first time in over a year, freshman forward Chris Walker was officially a basketball player again.
Ineligible for the fall semester due to academic shortcomings and ultimately suspended the first 12 games of spring due to receiving impermissible benefits as a high schooler, the five-star prospect who signed with the Florida Gators in November saw the court for the first time as a collegian.
No, he was not Kevin Garnett or Wilt Chamberlin – never-stated expectations head coach Billy Donovan sarcastically dismissed over the last few weeks – but Walker did make an impact in his first game even if he did only play seven minutes.
But first, he had to get to the point where he could step on the court.
Walker said after Tuesday’s game that he was glad to finally have the struggle with the NCAA behind him, thanking his coaches and teammates for keeping him motivated. He also claimed that he had “no idea about all the rules and everything” because he was just 16 and 17-years-old at the time.
“I knew it had to end eventually,” he said. “I just kept a positive mind, kept working and following coach and what he said every day.”
Then came what was supposed to be the easy part – playing – though Walker needed a reality check before checking in to Tuesday’s game with 11:28 left in the first half.
“[I thought,] ‘Damn Chris, you’re really about to step on this court and play for the Florida Gators for real. This is not high school anymore. This is real.”
Walker saw most of his action in the first half, registering two blocks and two rebounds. He committed two fouls and was out of position occasionally while playing defense.
He also flashed some of his freak athletic talent via a pair of alley-oop dunks on passes from former AAU teammate and freshman point guard Kasey Hill.
“I’ve known Kasey since ninth grade,” said Walker. “I just looked in his eyes and it brought back flashbacks, me and him, AAU.
“I looked up and it was just like, ‘Oh,’ he threw it up and I got it. I just looked in his eyes and know, if I’m open, he’ll just throw it up and I’ll go get it.”
Walker also had to deal with the boisterous home crowd inside the Stephen C. O’Connell Center that cheered wildly when he entered the game, increased its volume whenever he touched the ball or made a play and exploded out of their seats on both of his dunks (one just seconds before the halftime buzzer sounded).
Though it made him nervous at first, Walker said the crowd ultimately helped him out and gave him the confidence he needed while making his first appearance on the court.
“It lets you know that Florida’s got one of the best fan bases in the country and they’re here to support their players,” he said.
In the end, Walker showed flashes, but seven minutes of court time is not enough to judge the type of impact he will have on the team this season. Trying to do that based off one game, anyway, would be foolish, which is why Donovan took that into consideration and purposely gave Walker just a taste of the action on Tuesday.
“I never wanted him to feel like he walked off the floor in his first game and he felt like, ‘I was a big disappointment tonight.’ I was happy he walked out after seven minutes and felt good about himself,” he explained. “I think the biggest thing now for us is now he’s a part of our team and hopefully the story is a dead issue because he’s there now. Now I think the biggest challenge for us as coaching staff is continually getting him more and more reps, more and more comfortable in what we’re doing, more and more confidence, and slowly trying to give him more and more minutes.
“As you can tell, he’s a team guy. He wants to help any way he can.”
Walker echoed Donovan’s sentiments while sitting next to him after the game.
“It feels good to just be a part of the team,” he said. “All I want to do is just play my role and do whatever I can to help the team continue to win.”
With his teammates’ support and extra attention from the coaches in practice, Walker could develop quick enough to earn major minutes as a reserve off the bench…or he could continue playing around 10 minutes a game.
Either way, it’s a step in the right direction.
“I’m excited that he was able to finally play,” Donovan said. “I was just really proud of his temperament, his demeanor and the way he just handled the whole situation. I was just happy he could finally get on the floor and contribute a little bit.”
Photo Credit: Phil Sandlin/Associated Press