Donovan: Chris Walker Isn’t a ‘Savior’ (But He Might Turn Out to be Pretty Good)
NEW YORK — Billy Donovan’s strategy regarding Chris Walker is simple.
Under-promise and hope to over-deliver.
The Florida coach is going to intentionally under-sell Walker’s capabilities because he doesn’t want a big fuss made over his star freshman and his mid-season debut.
“People are talking about Chris Walker like he’s going to become eligible and be the savior of the program,” Donovan said after his No. 16 Gators edged No. 15 Memphis, 77-75, thanks to Casey Prather’s 22 points in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.
“He’s a high school player who hasn’t played competitive basketball since the end of February last year.”
In poking fun at the media hype surrounding Walker, Donovan added: “I feel like [Hakeem] Olajuwon or Dwight Howard’s walking through the door and it’s not that.”
The 6-foot-10 Walker is a McDonald’s All-American currently projected as the No. 10 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft by DraftExpress.com.
After being declared academically ineligible for the first semester, Walker began practicing with Florida on Saturday but still awaits word from the NCAA Clearinghouse. He didn’t make the trip to New York with the Gators, and it remains unclear when he will make his debut.
“I think the first thing right now is, right now he came in, he’s 6-foot-10, he weighs 203 pounds,” Donovan explained in a hallway at the Garden. “Two hundred and three pounds.”
“He just got absolutely annihilated by Patric Young for three days. It was a very humbling experience for him. He has no chance of stepping on the floor and even remotely helping us in a game, and it’s not his fault. He hasn’t played.
“He has the potential to be a very, very good player, but he is so lost and so far behind. The thing I admire most about him is that kid has fought his tail off to get here and that’s the thing I admire about him.”
Walker and Florida freshman point guard Kasey Hill played AAU ball together, and figure to have a strong chemistry once they get it going.
But Donovan cautioned that Walker, like Hill and all the other elite freshmen in America, face a difficult adjustment period.
“Most of these young guys, like Kasey Hill and these guys walk on the floor, and all these guys from Kansas walk on the floor, and [they think] sure it’s going to be easy,” Donovan said. “And all of a sudden Kasey Hill starts lining up against seniors and it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s a different level.’ And Chris Walker is lining up against seniors and now he’s saying, ‘Wow, this is a different level.’
“So I can’t even remotely say how, when, where, how much he can help us. I do know I’m happy to have him. I’m looking forward to coaching him. I like being around him. He’s a great kid…”
Donovan is trying his best to minimize the hype around Walker because he knows the kid is probably in for a rough transition, and he doesn’t want to see the kid get shot down.
“I think that’s unfair to the kid and he has to deal with that,” Donovan said before transitioning to an Andrew Wiggins story.
“The fact that anyone is comparing Andrew Wiggins to LeBron James is nuts. It’s just crazy. It’s not fair to Wiggins. He’s not LeBron James. This guy hasn’t even played a college basketball game and we’re comparing him to LeBron James. He’s a great player. He’s going to be one-and-done. He’s going to be a high draft pick, but come on.
“And I’m not going to allow that to happen to Chris. And I’m not lying or being less than truthful. This is where the kid’s at right now and this is in fairness to him.”
Moments after Donovan went off on his perfectly rational rant on Walker, Memphis coach Josh Pastner chimed in on the freshman’s upside.
Pastner doesn’t need to downplay Walker and offered this assessment.
“He’s a big-time player so that’s just going to be another good piece for them,” Pastner said of Walker.
“He hasn’t practiced for the whole first semester for them but he’s a good player, there’s no doubt about that.”
Just don’t ask Billy Donovan to tell you that.
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.