When Tad Boyle decided to offer Jabari Walker a scholarship to play basketball in Colorado, he was doing it — he’s not afraid to admit it now — mostly on a whim. Walker was not a highly touted prospect. He was a three-star winger with no clear position, a scrawny kid who showed relatively little of the pedigree of his father, Samaki Walker, a top-10 pick in the 1996 NBA Draft who played a decade in the league.
Boyle thought Walker was interesting early in his career at Compass Prep in Arizona, but he barely had a thorough developmental record on the kid, and at the time the Buffaloes had a real need to recruit a player of his type. , COVID-19 had sent all recruiting into the dreaded realm of Zoom. Walker, like so many of his peers, never set foot on the Colorado campus in the process, and Boyle never got to see if this lanky young prospect had improved. “We ended up signing him not knowing, quite frankly, what we were getting,” Boyle said.
After two promising and productive years of college basketball, first as a role player and then as a star, the picture of Jabari Walker is much clearer now – and the Portland Trail Blazers, who chose him 57th in the NBA Draft, hope there’s plenty more up the left to capture.
It turned out that Walker was just a latecomer, a player whose skill set and body didn’t remotely come together when he needed to decide where he wanted to play college hoops. Now, as he enters the NBA, that late-blooming tag still applies in full, this time with a proven and sought-after NBA skill base. It’s an exciting combination.
These showed his long-term potential soon after Boyle finally brought the player to campus. “I remember talking to Samaki when we signed him, and he said, ‘Coach, I hope he can help you when he’s a sophomore or a junior,'” Boyle said. . “’He’s not ready yet.’ Then he comes to campus and does some practice and it’s like, oh. He is a good player.” Walker had the advantage of coming into a veteran Colorado team, a top-10 team nationally and one led by senior guard McKinley Wright IV, and so Walker could blend in, make what he was doing well and not having to carry a major charge. Listed at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan, Walker shot 52.3 percent on 3 and posted elite rebound rates in as a rookie, playing on the periphery of a top offensive team.Out of nowhere, the 3 and D wing model was applied and the NBA took an immediate interest.
Walker’s star turn came last season, as a sophomore, when things got tough. Suddenly, thanks to his own rise and a minor rebuilding year for the Buffaloes roster, Walker had to be a star. He also, for the first time in his life, felt the all-seeing eye of the NBA’s constant surveillance. At the start of the season, shots weren’t falling, his stock was slipping and a small crisis of confidence ensued. “You know what happens to these kids,” Boyle said. “There was buzz about him after his freshman year, and he’s like, Now I’m the guy, it’s my turn.” It was no secret to the Colorado coaching staff that Walker put too much pressure on himself and his shooting went haywire as a result.
Rather than spiraling, however, Walker managed to turn the tide, an impressive piece of silent resilience that also saved Colorado’s Pac-12 campaign. In short, Walker relaxed a bit; the blows began to fall; the defenses started pushing on him which allowed him to put the ball on the ground, and it all went downhill from there.
The promise of his first campaign remained intact. At the end of the year, Walker shot 34.6% on 3, including 37.3% in Pac-12 play, while also ranking as the 11th best defensive rebounder in the nation. He was able to operate in the position and was producing effective numbers per possession there. Offensively, he could float between roles somewhat, for better or for worse, but overall he was exactly the kind of efficient, outside-inside winger with length that the NBA loves to draft these days, and so it’s no surprise that he was selected after impressing the scouts during the pre-draft process.
Still, there are great areas for growth. Walker has the tools to be a strong two-to-four defender, but didn’t always apply them last season. He should get stronger and faster, and will probably need it. Last season’s shooting inconsistency cannot continue in the league. But the fundamentals – great rebounding and a perimeter shot deep into a forward’s body – are there. If Walker continues to flourish at the current rate, he should also pleasantly surprise his next coach.
(Photo: Ron Chenoy/USA Today)