When Tad Boyle decided to offer Jabari Walker a scholarship to play basketball at Colorado, he was – he’s not afraid to admit now – doing so mostly on a whim. Walker was not a highly touted prospect. He was a three-star wing without a clear position, a skinny kid who outwardly showed relatively little of the pedigree of his father, Samaki Walker, a 1996 top-10 NBA Draft pick who played a decade in the league.
Boyle thought Walker was interesting early in his career at Compass Prep in Arizona, but he hardly had a deep developmental file on the kid, and by the time the Buffaloes had a genuine recruiting need for a player of his type, COVID-19 had sent all recruiting into the dreaded realm of the Zoom. Walker, like so many of his peers, never stepped foot on Colorado’s campus in the process, and Boyle never got an up-to-date look at whether this gangly young prospect had improved. “We ended up signing him not knowing, quite frankly, what we were getting,” Boyle said.
After two promising, productive years of college basketball, first as a role player and then as a star, the Jabari Walker portrait is much clearer now – and the Portland Trail Blazers, who picked him 57th in the NBA Draft, hope there is much more upside left to capture.
Walker, as it turned out, was simply a late bloomer, a player whose full skill package and body hadn’t remotely come together by the time he needed to decide where he wanted to play college hoops. Now, as he enters the NBA, that late-bloomer label still fully applies, this time with a foundation of proven, in-demand NBA skills. It’s an exciting combination.
Those showed his long-term potential not long after Boyle finally got the player on campus. “I remember talking to Samaki when we signed him, and he said ‘Coach, I hope he can help you by the time he’s a sophomore or a junior,'” Boyle said. “‘He’s not ready yet.’ Then he gets to campus and goes through workouts and it’s like, oh. He’s a good player. ” Walker had the benefit of walking into a veteran Colorado team, a top-10 outfit nationally and one led by senior guard McKinley Wright IV, and so Walker could blend in, do the stuff he did well, and not be forced to carry a major load. Listed at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan, Walker shot 52.3 percent from 3 and flashed elite rebounding rates as a freshman, playing on the periphery of a high-functioning offensive team. Out of nowhere, the 3-and-D wing template was applied, and the NBA immediately took interest.
Walker’s star turn came last season, as a sophomore, when things got complicated. Suddenly, thanks to his own rise and to a minor rebuilding year for the Buffaloes’ roster, Walker was expected to be a star. He also, for the first time in his life, felt the all-seeing eye of constant NBA scouting scrutiny. Early in the season, shots weren’t falling, his stock was slipping, and a minor crisis of confidence ensued. “You know what happens to these kids,” Boyle said. “There was some buzz about him after his freshman year, and he’s like, Now I’m the guy, it’s my turn.” It was hardly a secret among the Colorado coaching staff that Walker had put too much pressure on himself, and that his shot had gone haywire as a result.
Rather than spiraling, though, Walker managed to turn his season around, an impressive piece of quiet resilience that salvaged Colorado’s Pac-12 campaign, too. In short, Walker chilled out a bit; shots started falling; defenses started pushing up on him, which allowed him to put the ball on the floor, and everything flowed from there.
The promise of his freshman campaign remained intact. By the end of the year, Walker shot 34.6 percent from 3, including 37.3 percent in Pac-12 play, while also rating out as the nation’s 11th-best defensive rebounder. He was capable of operating in the post, and produced efficient per-possession numbers down there. Offensively, he could float between roles somewhat, for better and for worse, but generally, he was exactly the kind of efficient, outside-in wing with length the NBA loves to draft these days, and so it is little surprise he was selected after impressing scouts during the pre-draft process.
Still, there are big areas for growth. Walker has the tools to be a solid two-through-four defender, but didn’t always apply them last season. He should get stronger and faster, and will probably need it. The inconsistency of last season’s shooting cannot carry over into the league. But the fundamentals – great rebounding and deep perimeter shooting in a forward’s body – are there. If Walker keeps blooming at the current pace, he should pleasantly surprise his next coach, too.
(Photo: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)