One way or another, the 2014 NCAA Tournament comes to an end in less than two weeks and a number of Florida Gators will need to sit down and evaluate their basketball-playing careers at that time.
That future remains somewhat decided for Florida’s four seniors, all of whom will first look to the NBA but almost certainly play professional basketball somewhere next season.
A number of other Gators will have a variety of options on the table.
Junior guard Eli Carter must determine whether he believes he will physically be able to play next season when he will be 19 months removed from a broken leg. Sophomore G Dillon Graham, coming off surgery for bone spurs in his hips, will also have to reevaluate his situation at Florida. Even if completely healthy, will he see much playing time in 2014-15 after an infusion of talent arrives at UF in the fall?
Then there’s the five-star freshmen. Though it was point guard Kasey Hill who opened the season as a starter and has seen extensive playing time throughout the campaign, leaving early for the NBA does not appear to be in his cards at this time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is power forward Chris Walker, who has averaged 1.8 points and 1.4 rebounds in just 5.1 minutes over the 15 games he has played since joining the team late and first taking the court on Feb. 4.
Once considered a sure-fire lottery selection, Walker’s sometimes-haphazard play and lack of collegiate practice time (just over three months) has exposed holes in his game.
Scouts now have questions about whether he could even be a productive rookie – and therefore a worthwhile first-round selection – which has most projecting the draft mocking him in the 20-30 range based purely on athleticism and upside.
As it turns out, Gators head coach Billy Donovan feels the same way.
“For him, it’s going to be a process,” Donovan said Wednesday.
“There’s a lot of things that he needs to learn. There’s a lot of growth that he needs. He needs to get physically stronger. He missed a whole summer and fall of lifting. He really missed the whole summer and fall of conditioning. He’s been a great kid to coach. He keeps working and getting better, but he’s got a long road ahead of him to get to the level that he needs and wants to get.”
For Walker, who was raised by his grandmother until she passed away before being taken in by a guardian at the age of 12, accepting that the long road could include another year of college rather than an immediate NBA paycheck may not be an easy conclusion to reach. In fact, it may not be one he is capable of arriving at on his own.
Donovan will sit down with Walker at the end of the season and explain why the big man should stay at Florida.
He’ll spell out why another year of development under one of the best coaching staffs in the nation could raise Walker’s NBA stock enough to where he’ll drafted earlier, make more money on his first contract and have a greater chance of establishing a long NBA career by not being forced to cut his teeth as a 19-year-old playing against grown men.
“I think his individual talent in terms of running and jumping, shot-blocking, there’s things that he’s very, very gifted at that come easy to him,” Donovan explained. “But I also think the days of standing in the lane in a high school game and daring people to come down the lane and blocking shots, those days are over with now.
“Now, he’s got to worry about screening action, being screened, guarding pick and rolls, guarding big guys that shoot, being in the right spot. There’s a lot that goes into that I think he even himself sometimes has been overwhelmed by.”
Donovan has consistently praised Walker for his disposition and work ethic. He believes the well-hyped forward has displayed a great attitude and done his best to help the team despite not seeing significant playing time.
What comes next for Walker will be more difficult than joining the No. 1 team in the nation in the middle of the season. It will be tougher than getting his grades to a level where he be allowed by the NCAA to step foot on a college basketball court. It may even be harder than growing up with a family that consistently faced tremendous financial adversity.
Can Walker see the bigger picture Donovan envisions for him, one of improvement and development, or is the lure of an NBA contract and the potential opulence that comes with it too much to keep at an arm’s length, even if just for one more season?
Photo Credit: Phil Sandlin/Associated Press