After a prolonged absence due to academic issues, Chris Walker is finally available for the Florida Gators. That news, courtesy of ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, offers a long-awaited answer while also spawning some questions.
I talked to Gators coach Billy Donovan about Walker, who was ineligible for the first semester and has missed the team’s first 19 games, after Florida’s win over Kansas last month in Gainesville, Fla. At the time, Walker’s status was still a mystery. Not even Donovan knew when -- or if -- he might join the team.
And Donovan certainly wasn’t sure how Walker would affect a program that’s now 6-0 in the SEC.
“I really don’t know. I know he’s a very good athlete,” Donovan said. “My biggest thing with him is going to be how quickly can he pick things up. And I’ve got to do a good job of keeping things simple for him. ... I hope it will work out.”
There’s no doubt that Walker can help. He’s a 6-foot-10 freak athlete who drew scholarship offers from every blue-chip program in the country. Walker will reportedly see his first collegiate action in next week’s matchup against Missouri, but he’s still a first-round pick in Chad Ford’s mock draft.
Walker has undeniable potential and a chance to add an element to a Florida team that already seems to have it all. Maybe he reaches that potential and Florida gains a lengthy, versatile forward who turns into an instant superstar in the final half of the season. It could happen. But it’s unlikely.
Plus, these midseason changes can also hinder a team in Florida’s situation. The Gators are rolling without Walker. They’re on top of the SEC, and if healthy, they’ll be an obvious contender for the national championship.
Throwing a talented teenager into the mix -- who might feel like he has a lot to prove after being ranked No. 12 in the Class of 2013 by ESPN.com -- could disrupt the continuity Florida has enjoyed during an 11-game winning streak.
That’s why there is pressure on Walker to find a way to make an impact without trying to force his way into a major role.
Sure, he’s the player everyone is talking about right now. Everyone wants to know what he’ll do, how good he’ll be.
But we’ve already witnessed the struggles that his peers have encountered. If Andrew Wiggins, Aaron Gordon, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Julius Randle have all had growing pains, imagine what a young man who hasn’t even played a Division I game yet will face.
Walker probably feels pressure. Pressure to shine. Pressure to prove that he’s a one-and-done too. Pressure to help.
He has to recognize the situation, though. Florida doesn’t really need him. The Gators have been one of America’s best teams without him.
If he’s patient and team-oriented, he’ll make the Gators a more dangerous threat to the rest of the country. Few teams outside of Lexington, Ky., can bring McDonald’s All Americans off the bench. Walker can help Patric Young inside, expand Donovan’s rotation and help the Gators match up against teams such as Kentucky that boast an abundance of size.
If Walker focuses on the Gators and ignores the chatter about what he is or isn’t supposed to do in the next two months, both he and the team will benefit. If he gets caught up in the hype that preceded his arrival and worries about expectations and mock drafts, then he might stall everything.
We’ve waited this long for his debut. But we’ll have to wait a little longer to discover what it really means for Florida.