Adversity is inevitable: Loss of DeVon Walker is first test for Gators

DeVon Walker, who tore the ACL in his right knee last week, could have been a key contributor for a Florida Gators basketball team but now will have surgery and focus on his rehab.

Florida's DeVon Walker made plenty of 3-point shots late last season and was a strong defender.

Rob Foldy / USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No contact. Just a routine summer individual instruction workout. And just like that, the Florida basketball team was down a key man for the 2014-15 season.

Swingman DeVon Walker suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last week and will undergo reconstructive surgery later this summer that will put him out for the year.

All Walker did was plant his foot to make a cut and the knee buckled. At first, the health staff thought it was a hyper-extension, but the swelling was bad enough for an MRI. The tests revealed the worst.

''DeVon had two years under his belt. He was really finding out who he was as a player and looking good at workouts,'' Florida coach Billy Donovan said. ''I feel terrible for him because he had worked so hard to get himself to this point.''

Walker, a junior from Winter Haven, Fla., averaged 2.4 points and 1.2 rebounds in 35 games last season, but he was in line for a bigger role this fall as the Gators look to replace four starters from a team that went 35-3 and advanced to the Final Four. Though he struggled with consistency on offense -- 30.9 percent from the floor, 30.2 from 3-point range -- Walker had some nice defensive moments and also a six-game stretch late when he made 10 of 18 shots from long distance.

Now, all this work will need to be channeled into rehab.

''It's hard, but I'll just have to attack it,'' Walker said. ''I'll be all right.''

Donovan said Walker will have to find some away-from-the-court things to focus on -- mental reps at practice, watching tape, working on his upper body in the weight room -- to help him stay connected with the day-to-day workings of the team.

''Sometimes when you have something taken away from you there is an unbelievable level of appreciation, as time goes by, with what you have when you're healthy and can play every single day,'' Donovan said. ''So he'll have to find a different way to make himself better until he gets the chance to be back there on the floor.''

The rest of the Gators, meantime, have immersed themselves in the summer strength and conditioning program.

The ''process'' that Donovan constantly references started months ago, with the head coach and his staff already hammering home the critical talking points -- much of them about expectations and roles -- that will carry into preseason practice and be ongoing themes long after the games begin in November.

As Donovan pointed out, of the 13 players currently on scholarship, three are freshmen who have never played a game (Devin Robinson, Chris Chiozza and Brandon Francis), two more have yet to be cleared for full contact (Eli Carter and Dillon Graham), one is already out for the season (Walker), another will miss the first eight games of the season per NCAA transfer rules (Alex Murphy, by way of Duke) and another will sit out the season per those same rules (Jon Egubunu, by way of South Florida).

''If we had to play, that leaves us with seven guys, plus Jake (Kurtz),'' Donovan said, adding the fifth-year fan favorite and walk-on who provided important early season minutes last year when the roster was influx with suspensions and injuries. ''We're not even a team right now.''

A lot can change in August, September and October, however, but Donovan will constantly remind his players that not one of them will have a role similar to the one they were in last year, including lone returning starter Michael Frazier. Donovan will put the challenges that lie ahead in perspective by pointing out, for example, that projected point guard Kasey Hill has been on the floor for just two losses (at Wisconsin last November and against Connecticut in the NCAA semifinals) in his brief college career.

Center Chris Walker, the program's top NBA prospect, lost one game last year, but he didn't even show up halfway through the season (due to his delayed eligibility), averaged less than five minutes a game and scored a total of 34 points in 18 games. Think his role will be different?

Now, compare where the team was a year ago -- with four seniors in Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete set to return -- to where it is today, as far as knowing what it takes to navigate the ebbs and flows of a college basketball season.

''Those guys lost in the (Southeastern Conference) Tournament championship game. They lost three straight years a game away of the Final Four,'' Donovan said. ''Those are experiences that rip your heart out and create a perseverance and drive. These guys don't have those experiences to draw on. Those guys had their bumps in the road and growing pains, and as a coach you have to draw a line and say, 'You don't need experience to know we're going to have adversity -- it's coming.' So they better be ready for it.''

In a way, it's already begun.