Chris Walker will make the transition from high school basketball royalty to superstardom sometime soon, whether it’s at Florida, where he’s recently completed coursework and could begin practicing this weekend if he’s cleared by the NCAA, or in the NBA. Is he ready? Well, it sort of feels like he’s been ready his whole life.
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The night before the 2013 Jordan Brand Classic, a mandatory stop for aspiring basketball royalty, Chris Walker relaxed in his Manhattan hotel room during a rare moment of reflection in a whirlwind week. Walker was a long way from the home he shared with his mom in his tiny hometown of Bonifay, Fla., and not just in proximity.
“Everyone in my city, they’re happy for me, and watch my games and support me and everything,” Walker said. “Just to be from a little city like I am and to be doing the stuff I’m doing now is just crazy.”
The rooms surrounding Walker harbored the future of basketball in America, including burgeoning household names Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. Walker’s talents had landed him in esteemed company – the past six No. 1 NBA Draft picks had played in the Classic – and he intended to demonstrate on the biggest stage of his high school career that he belonged.
“I never would have thought I’d be a Jordan Brand or McDonald’s All-American,” Walker said. “That was my dream, to do that. To be able to realize those dreams? Well … that’s pretty good. But I’ve got plenty more to go.”
A few weeks earlier, Walker had won the dunk contest at the McDonald’s Game, no surprise to anyone who’d seen his epic YouTube highlight reels. But the game itself devolved into a free-for-all, as usual. Walker played well but rarely saw the ball, scoring just four points.
“I think I’m playing better here,” Walker said of the Jordan Classic. “You have better guards to pass it to you, the play’s been more consistent.”
“I feel like I can keep up with anyone out here. I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t.”
The atmosphere the next night was a sensory overload more akin to the NBA than a high school All-American game. Jay Z boomed from the Barclays Center speakers, fireworks exploded from behind both baskets and A-list names like Carmelo Anthony, Spike Lee and CC Sabathia sat courtside. None other than Michael Jordan himself peered down from a skybox, and Drake would soon arrive – in a sign of the times – to the biggest ovation of all.
Standing in two parallel lines on opposite ends of the court, the Jordan All-Americans’ heads were universally on a swivel, vacillating between not so subtly checking out the celebrities in the first row and sizing up the opposition.
Walker, however, stared straight ahead, focused on the task at hand, looking very much like someone with something to prove.
After the ball tipped, the 6-9 forward immediately kicked it into high gear. Playing in front of one of his idols, Amar’e Stoudemire, Walker seemed a reasonable facsimile, soaring over everyone to score the East Team’s first two baskets on a putback dunk and an alley-oop. About a minute later, he masterfully sealed off his man and glided to the hoop for a pretty lefty layup.
Walker finished with 14 points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes, plus a fresh set of highlights to fuel his growing buzz — and, of course, a requisite Instagram picture with Drake.
“It felt great,” a beaming Walker said in the tunnel after the game. “I just wanted to come out and play with a lot of energy, run the floor and compete with all of these top players.”
Walker paused, a thoughtful look crossing his face like a cloud obscuring the sun.
“I don’t feel like I really did that good overall. But I did all right.”
It sounded like the words of someone with very high standards for himself.
“Yeah,” he said with a nod, “pretty much.”
There’s no question Walker is already a very good player. But perhaps even more so than his prodigious physical gifts, it’s his unwillingness to be satisfied that demonstrates his potential to be great.
At the moment, Walker is still waiting to be cleared by the NCAA. Ruled academically ineligible, the top recruit — currently ranked No. 14 on Chad Ford’s Top 100 for the 2014 NBA Draft — received some great news earlier this month: He’s completed his coursework for the semester and could be admitted to the school any day now. The Orlando Sentinel reports he could begin practicing with the No. 19-ranked Gators as early as this weekend.
Originally, when Walker committed to play basketball at the University of Florida, he did it in unique fashion: He tweeted a link to a YouTube video. No ESPN cameras, no caps on a table. Just a few minutes of the craziest highlight reel you’ve ever seen backdropped by a gladiator-movie beat named “Epic Killer.”
His choice of medium for his announcement couldn’t have been more fitting, as Walker has long been a YouTube sensation. His hometown has a population of around 4,000 people, and his high school team, Holmes County, rarely played outside Northwest Florida. But basketball aficionados have swapped Walker mixtape links for years, debating whether he more resembles Kevin Garnett or Josh Smith.
“Walker’s got incredible hops, especially for a guy his size, and he looks like a spider on steroids on defense,” says Andy Hutchins, editor of SB Nation’s Alligator Army blog and a self-professed Walker YouTube addict. “I think he has the sort of hyper-athletic dunks-and-blocks game that Florida hasn’t had in a decade, really since Donnell Harvey. The closest to Harvey’s skill-set that a Florida player has come since is Alex Tyus, and Tyus wasn’t as athletic as Walker appears to be.”
When the music stopped, Walker put on a Florida snapback with “SkyWalker” stitched on it, calmly announced his intention to team up with AAU teammate and friend Kasey Hill and jovially did the Gator chop.
“Together, we will be the best duo in college,” Walker said in the video with a hint of mischief, “and we will … win a National Championship. You heard it here first.”
Walker’s guarantee raised eyebrows. It was a bold statement, even if you didn’t factor in the army of top recruits Kentucky was amassing. Walker had long expressed interest in playing for the Wildcats; his comment might have been his good-natured way of throwing a gauntlet down.
But make no mistake, Walker truly believes that with hard work, his audacious words could become a reality.
“Of course,” Walker said this past summer. “Of course that’s a goal I’ve set. Now my main thing is just to get to Florida, and just work on my footwork and all the other aspects of the game. I want to get farther than they did this year. They made it to the Elite 8, and I’m just trying to get to the Final Four and take it from there.”
There’s a stigma about YouTube mixtapes among basketball traditionalists, namely that they’re long on sizzle but lack substance. Fair enough. But seek out videos of Walker’s state tournament games and you will witness not a highlight factory, but a complete player and leader. Walker anchored his squad on defense, dominating the boards and using his 85.5-inch wingspan to alter virtually every shot. On offense, he ran the court like a deer and attacked relentlessly from the high post.
As a result, he’ll enter college with the confidence that comes from having willed his high school team to its first-ever state championship.
“He is a guy who impressed me as soon as he walked in the door,” says Jack LeGwin, a Florida-based recruiting analyst for ZagsBlog and player-development.com. “Head down, headphones on, tunes out pretty much everything that is going on in the building, and as soon as he walks on the court, it’s much the same.
“In the semifinals, his team wasn’t expected to win, but he recorded a triple-double with 20 points, 13 rebounds and 13 blocks, leading Holmes County to the win. But he still said he wasn’t satisfied with his performance, and he promised to bring it in the title game.”
His stat line in the finals victory over West Gadsden? Thirty points, 15 rebounds and seven blocks.
“It might have taken all the way until my senior year to get a state title, but better late than never,” Walker says.
“Still, it feels like it’s just the beginning now.”
When Walker was deciding where he should go to college, he asked his idol, LeBron James, for advice on Twitter. The King responded – which says something in itself – to tell him to follow his heart.
They say home is where the heart is, and for someone who passed on every big-time prep school to stay in Bonifay with his guardian and adoptive mother, Jeneen Campbell, it makes perfect sense Walker could be playing just three and a half hours away from the small town where he dunked for the first time in fifth grade.
(You read that right: He started dunking in fifth grade. “I was like, ‘Man, this is fun,’” Walker says with a laugh.)
Walker did experience a setback when it was determined he hadn’t been able to take the requisite courses at Holmes County to qualify for the fall semester at Florida. Unbowed, Walker cracked the books and now hopes to join the Gators just in time for SEC play.
“Shoot, I can’t wait to get there,” Walker says. “High school has been fun for me, and it’s been good hanging out with my friends and everything, but it’s time to enter real life now.”
Walker has elite point guard Hill, his good friend and longtime AAU running mate, beside him. With the return of Patric Young, the arrival of talented transfer Dorian Finney-Smith and the emergence of lead scorer Casey Prather, the Gators might just be good enough to back up Walker’s bold guarantee. He knows he has more work to do, but he’ll have the support of a state that has backed him every step of the way, especially after he committed to the Gators.
“I know it’s going to be a change of speed,” Walker says. “Everybody’s going to be stronger, everybody can jump. It’s time to work on my shot, get stronger and work on all the things that need work for the next level with a great coach in Coach (Billy) Donovan.”
Walker is serious about basketball, but in every other sense, he’s a fun-loving and likable dude – even a bit of a goofball. Tell him you’re a Knicks fan? You’ll get a playful “Team Heat!” as a response. He loves playing video games, talking basketball at the barbershop and heading south to hang out in Panama City with his friends.
At some point, he’ll most likely have to depart his comfort zone in the Sunshine State, but heading right down I-10 to Gainesville seems a perfect way to transition to the next level. Most importantly, Campbell, who raised Chris by herself, will easily be able to attend every home game.
“My mom … she’s everything to me,” Walker says, his voice softening. “Even when I thought myself I wouldn’t have the chance to do anything, before I thought I had the chance to go to a college like Florida or anything like that, she still believed in me.
“My mom is my life. She’s kind of like my backbone. Without her, it would be very hard, and I’m trying to do this for her, to make sure that one day, she won’t have no worries, won’t have to worry about anything. Just be living good. That drives me a lot.”
Consider Chris Walker’s talent, then add in that sort of motivation, and it seems likely that someday very soon, he’ll be competing against the same idols who once gave him advice.
“It’s going to be unreal to look over and see guys like Carmelo, Amar’e and LeBron,” Walker says. “Whether or not I do well against them, I’d still go hard at them.
“Just because it’s LeBron James or someone like that, it doesn’t mean I’d look back.”
After all, for Chris Walker, the best appears to lie ahead.
How good will Walker be at Florida?
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