Florida big man Chris Walker dealing with big — sometimes unreasonable — expectations
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Chris Walker doesn’t talk to the media very much. Florida’s soft-spoken 6-foot-10 1/2 sophomore center, calling it like it is, hasn’t had much to talk about lately.
But there Walker was Monday morning, standing at a podium, bending over to speak into the microphone, when asked about the upcoming challenge Tuesday, as the Gators (10-7, 3-1) face a very large and physical bunch from Louisiana State (13-4, 2-2) at the O’Connell Center.
Walker was just calling it like it is.
"Me playing horrible the past couple games, I feel like this game is what I need," Walker said.
Give the kid credit. Walker is not living in some delusional state where he believes everything that so many said about him (and projected for him) before ever seeing him play. Yes, he was a McDonald’s All-American with freak-a-zoid athleticism, but to say he was camera-ready for the NBA lottery — as many a draft analyst surmised this time last year, before he’d even made his college debut — was absurd.
Now 33 games into his UF career, Walker has tallied 114 points, 87 rebounds and 27 blocked shots. He has yet to hit double-figure scoring in a Southeastern Conference game, despite starting the first four of this season. In three of those games, he had one field goal. In the other, he made two.
Nothing has come easy. Nothing is going to.
"I just need to improve," he said.
It’s a long way from 1A basketball in the panhandle.
"There’s not a lot of 6-11 guys up there in Bonifay, Florida," UF coach Billy Donovan said.
But there were plenty of 5-10 kids slapping at Walker’s knees and wrists as he led Holmes County High to the state championship, averaging 32 points, 17 rebounds and six blocked shots per game. Still, Walker was labeled a rare "one-and-doner," even after the NCAA Clearinghouse flagged his eligibility, preventing him from enrolling until the second semester of his freshman year and suspended for 12 games due to amateurism issues.
When Walker dunked twice in his first college game — Feb. 4, 2014, in a nationally televised win over Missouri — it was like a legend had been unleashed.
"Everyone wanted to talk about him like he was Wilt Chamberlain and I’m like, ‘[He’s] not that,’ " Donovan said. "I’m in practice with the guy. It’s not that. And then it’s, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re just downplaying this thing.’ If a guy can really, really play, I’m going to tell you he can really, really play. If a guy’s not getting better, I’m going to tell you he has a long way to go.
"And I feel bad for Chris because it’s a hard existence sometimes when you have everyone expecting you to be this and you’re not and you can sometimes personally feel like, ‘I’m letting people down, I’m a failure.’ And it’s not his fault. And he’s got to be able to manage that. As a young kid, sometimes that’s hard."
For really the first time, Donovan truly sensed discouragement from Walker after the Georgia game, when he went 1-for-3 from the floor, missed both free-throw attempts and was shoved around in the post by a bulky veteran frontcourt.
Now comes Walker against the Tigers, who have a 7-foot center, a 6-11 power forward and athletic 6-8 small forward that scores in bunches. The Gators are going to need him and he knows that.
That’s why Walker, averaging just 5.3 points and 4.3 rebounds, is so anxious for his next chance.
But there’s more to this whole thing than just playing well. There’s playing on when you don’t play well, which is something this team as a whole, hasn’t done well this season. Walker is just a very tall example of it.
"I miss a shot that I think I should make and I’m thinking about it," Walker said. "I’ve been talking to some of my teammates and they just tell me to move past it."
On Monday, Donovan’s video staff put together a presentation that showed Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s disastrous start against Green Bay in the NFC Championship and the mentally tough way he pressed on from four interceptions and a 16-point second-half deficit to lead his team to one of the most stunning victories in NFL playoff history.
The Gators also saw video of Wilson sobbing in ecstacy afterward, showing tearful appreciation on his teammates for not giving up on him.
"I don’t know [Wilson] and I can’t say that I’ve ever watched the Seattle Seahawks play [closely], but I’ve got a lot of admiration for a guy like that," Donovan said. "A thing can be going so poorly for him personally and wondering if he, in some way, is going to feel responsible for them not advancing; and then to have the ability to stay in tune in the moment of what is going on and be able to flush everything else out … to me [that’s] an incredible competitor and incredible winner to be able to respond like that."
No one is asking Walker to be the poster boy for mental toughness, but the Gators are asking him to play more to his strengths and quit trying to force plays that not only aren’t there, but are ones he cannot make.
It’s about — yes, you’ve probably heard/read this before — playing to his identity.
What does that mean?
"Like run the floor harder, finish around the basket, finish easy layups and easy dump-down passes," Walker said. "I think, just taking my time. Don’t rush it. Don’t rush my move. Sometimes I rush it and I’m getting a travel call or something that hurts the team."
To be frank, the ball just needs to find Walker (with a pass from his teammate, or follow-up slam, something along those lines) versus Walker calling for it or putting it on the floor and trying to make something happen.
Now 17 games into the season (almost a year since that first game), everyone was expecting more. Way more. Too much more.
"I feel like I should be caught up by now," he said. "But I think missing the whole first half [of last season] kind of messed me up for real."
Walker no longer is looking to validate anyone else’s expectations. He just wants to help his team.