It takes skill to be real and time to heal, which is exactly what Florida Gators redshirt junior guard/forward DeVon Walker has spent the last 10 months concentrating on while rehabilitating from a torn ACL suffered during a pick-up game in the 2014-15 offseason.
For a Florida basketball team that is undergoing a major shirt, not only at the top with a new head coach in Michael White but with two of its top guards leaving the program, Walker is suddenly presented with the opportunity to make a significant impact when he is finally cleared to return to the court.
And from the looks of it, Walker is prepared.
Listed at 191 pounds as a sophomore, the 6-foot-6 Walker added 12 pounds of pure muscle and was up to 203 ahead of the 2014-15 campaign. He has only gotten bigger and stronger during his time away from the hardwood … because that’s really all he’s been able to do.
“Definitely my body [improved],” Walker said Wednesday. “I was actually able to lift a weight more than 50 pounds [this season]. My body – a lot of core strength and my legs now [are stronger], definitely.”
Plus, his ACL is close to completely healed.
“I’m [feeling] great, man. I feel like I could race a boat right now,” Walker said with a wry smile. “I feel pretty good. The training staff’s been doing great with me. Probably a little bit more and I’ll be 100 percent.”
The Gators will need Walker to be at full health by the time the season rolls around. Though the absence of a 30.9 percent shooter and 2.4 points-per-game scorer may not have seemed like a huge loss on the periphery, he was relegated to a back-of-the-bench role during Florida’s Final Four season as an unpolished youngster on a team with plenty of seasoned veterans.
Walker steadily improved for the Gators down the stretch of the 2013-14 campaign, even going 11-for-22 from three during an eight-game stretch late in the regular season before flat lining in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
By all accounts, he was prepared to step up and play a major role for Florida last season. Instead, an injury occurring at a freak time temporarily derailed his career, and he was unable to help the Gators as the team posted its worst season since 1997-98.
“That was probably the hardest point in my life athletically. I just wanted to be out there with my guys and my brothers and actually play,” he explained. “That’s the toughest thing, wanting to actually be in the heat with them and endure a war with them – that’s what I wanted. You feel almost helpless like you can’t help them. I tried to do as much as I can with talking and inspiration, but I wish I could’ve done a little bit more.”
Now, Walker is back in the gym, participating in 40-minute individual workouts with the new coaching staff three times a week, rehabilitating on his own and getting shots up whenever time allows.
Suffice to say, his teammates are noticing.
“He’s moving great. DeVo, he’s a warrior. He obviously had a really, really hard year but to bounce back the way he has and recover and stick with the process has been inspiring to a lot of people,” said redshirt senior F Alex Murphy. “To see him back on the court with us working out, he looks really good. He’s moving good, he’s finishing above the rim; he looks like he hasn’t missed a step, to be honest.”
Sophomore F Devin Robinson echoed Murphy’s thoughts.
“DeVon’s been working hard. He’s one of the hardest-working players on the team. He’s starting to get back in the action. They’re working on his knee every day; he’s getting treatment every day like he’s supposed to. He’s focused, and I think he’s ready to go,” Robinson said.
“I look up to DeVo a lot. He’s like the wise man of the team, I would say. How we had [Jon] Horford last year, it’s DeVo now. Everybody looks up to DeVo.”
Told of Robinson’s comments, Murphy was not prepared to make that comparison just yet, ribbing his younger teammate in the process.
“I don’t know if I would believe anything that Devin said. [Laughing] But DeVo, he is wise for his age. He’s definitely mature and he’s a great teammate, he really is. He’s someone that everybody likes to be around all the time. But yeah, don’t take any advice from Devin – that’s not a good idea.”
It must certainly be nice for Walker to feel the support from his teammates, especially considering the three other prospects he joined Florida with are no longer members of the squad. Point guard Braxton Ogbueze transferred off the program two years ago, G Dillon Graham left early in the 2014-15 campaign and Michael Frazier II departed this offseason in order to play professionally.
“Everybody left. It’s weird, when you first get here, you envision everybody finishing together, but it didn’t work out that way. Everybody went their separate ways,” Walker explained, noting that he now feels added responsibility as an upperclassman.
“I think it’s a big deal now. Guys look at me as the older guy and the leader, and it’s something I’m willing to embrace and do what I can.”
With so much having occurred during a trying season and turbulent last few months, Walker’s rehabilitation and evolving strength – both physically and emotionally – may be just what Florida needs to turn things around.