For the second time in as many seasons, sophomore forward/center Chris Walker is joining the Florida Gators (1-1) late as he is set to make his second-year debut on Friday against the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (2-0).
Ahead of his freshman campaign, academic eligibility issues kept Walker out of action until the spring semester, and accusations of impermissible benefits forced him to sit a few more games. By the time Walker took the court for the first time on Feb. 4, 2014, he had not played in an organized basketball game in more than a year and was joining a well-oiled, third-ranked Florida squad that was already 19-2 on the season.
For those reasons, Walker’s impact was minimal. He averaged just 4.8 minutes per game and did not make much of a difference in most contests, though his size, athleticism and versatility certainly showed through at times.
Though he was also forced to miss the first two regular-season games of the 2014-15 campaign due to an unspecified violation of team rules, which OnlyGators.com was told occurred soon after last season, Walker has supposedly been a good soldier since. He even earned praise from head coach Billy Donovan on Thursday.
“I think he’s actually done a better job of handling the expectations that are out there on him. Sometimes when there’s expectations on a player, a player can get really bought into those expectations or a player identify that, ‘There’s no way I can reach that expectation of what’s expected of me,'” explained Donovan. “I think I’ve seen a growth in him where he’s gotten back down to reality of, ‘I need to get better. I need to improve. I need to figure out a way to help our team.’”
Donovan wants Walker to “have both feet in the circle and do the things that we need him to do to help us be a better team.”
Considering the depth-depleted Gators will likely need Walker to play starter’s minutes, especially with redshirt junior F Dorian Finney-Smith sidelined, he will have a tremendous opportunity to prove that he has the team-first, me-second attitude that Donovan hopes all his players will find this season.
“He’s gotten away from this idea that he needs to be this scorer. I think he’s playing closer to his strengths, and I think we as a coaching staff have tried to help him see that,” Donovan said. “Play to your identity and your strengths, you know what I mean? You don’t need to be shooting jump shots. And I’m not saying he can never shoot a jump shot, but inside the framework of what we’re doing, this needs to be your identity. That’s where he can help us by playing to his strengths.”
It will all come to a head Friday night at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center as Walker takes his first step toward success as a college basketball player. At 6-foot-10 and 220 pounds, he is the second-largest player on a Gators deep in desperate need of an inside presence, which it could certainly use to propel itself forward after suffering a devastating loss just four days ago.
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Finney-Smith will not be available to play on Friday, making it the second-straight game he will stay on the bench after suffering two hairline fractures in his non-shooting hand during the season opener one week ago. “I think it’s still too painful. They put a cast on him for a few days before the Miami game and his hand did swell. He still has some pretty significant swelling,” said Donovan, who noted that Finney-Smith is nevertheless cleared to play. “Can he catch, can he handle the basketball? Where the pain level is at right now, he just can’t do that. So I’m not interested in putting him out there where he’s focused trying to protect himself because he’s really uncomfortable. How much longer this will go on, I’m not sure, but definitely going to be out for [Friday]’s game.”
» On redshirt junior guard Eli Carter stepping up as a scorer for the Gators: “I just always believe that scoring is a byproduct of when the ball finds you. I just believe that. We’re, offensively, not the kind of team where a guy is going to wind up and one-on-one. What was impressive to me was that he didn’t take a high number of shots, but he was very efficient. … I’m much more concerned about Eli being more verbal and extending himself emotionally into our team. He’s really smart and cerebral, and I wish he would share more. Not that I want him to be a leader, but he sees a guy like Kasey struggling, go grab him. He sees Frazier all wrapped up in a missed shot, go grab him. The thing I think is one of Eli’s greatest strengths, he’s a pretty even-keeled guy. He moves through stuff pretty well and doesn’t get too high, too low. He’s pretty balanced, and I think he could help some of our other guys in that area.”
» On whether redshirt senior C Jon Horford will continue shooting threes once the roster fills out with returning players: “We’re going to let him shoot threes because he’s good at it.”
» On how Walker and Horford could share the court: “I think if they did play some together, Jon would move to the power forward spot and Chris would play the center spot. We’ve done a little bit of that in practice, not necessarily a lot. How much they’ll play together, I don’t know. I think Jon, being an older guy, understands both positions. Chris probably feels very comfortable now at the center spot. I think they could play together and work off each other a little bit more. Because of the early games and practice and Chris being out, they haven’t done that a lot.”
Photo Credit: Phil Sandlin/Associated Press