Friday March 4th, 2016

BOSTON — On a pleasantly warm December Saturday afternoon, 5,288 people packed Matthews Arena, the oldest active college basketball venue in the country, to watch the Northeastern Huskies host then-No. 1 and undefeated Michigan State. For the first time in 20 years, the old barn was sold out.

The Huskies clawed with the Spartans early. With 12:18 remaining in the first half, senior guard David Walker bounced off a screen from freshman forward Jeremy Miller. Walker realized his defender, Spartans sophomore guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn, had retreated several feet to wall off his drive. He practically brought Nairn to his knees with a right-to-left crossover and lurched backwards to drain a smooth step-back triple at the top of the key.

On Northeastern’s first possession of the second half, Walker curled off a side dribble-handoff from senior forward Zach Stahl. Both his man, senior guard Denzel Valentine, and Stahl’s defender, sophomore forward Javon Bess, stuck with Walker. He promptly slipped a pocket pass through the double team, hitting Stahl in stride for an easy layup.

Walker was instrumental in Northeastern’s valiant early charge against the Spartans, probing Michigan State’s defense and discovering passing lanes few collegiate point guards can. Ultimately, the Huskies fell to the Spartans by 20 points. And they have struggled this year, going 17–14 overall and 9–9 in the Colonial Athletic Association. Still, Northeastern could steal an NCAA tournament bid by winning the CAA tournament, which it begins on Saturday against Towson.

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Despite his team’s struggles, Walker has shone, posting the best individual statistics—including 18.0 points a game—of his college career. At 6’6” and 196 pounds, Walker already stands out among college guards, and his combination of outside shooting (41.3% from three) and playmaking ability have made him an intriguing second-round NBA draft prospect. “In the NBA now, everyone is talking about size and length,” says an Eastern Conference scout. “And he has both.”

He also separates himself with a high basketball IQ. He can recite the progression of his pick-and-roll reads like the pledge of allegiance.  

“You gotta know what the coverage is,” Walker says. “If they’re showing, if they’re hard showing, you have to attack the ball screen, try to get over the big and get in the paint, draw two, kick it out and get them in rotation. If not, they’re bumping hard off the corner, I look for the throw back. If they go under the screen,” he pauses to chuckle, “I’m letting it fly. If they’re soft, I look for the pocket pass. If they’re hedging, try to get around the big and into the paint.”

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Those pick-and-roll sequences are only part of an endless stream of consciousness Walker experiences throughout each game. The Stow, Ohio, native has been that way since high school, says Stow-Munroe Falls High coach David Close.  “With his size, passing over people, around people, it looks like he’s moving in slow motion he’s so efficient,” says Close. “He plays his angles right.”

Walker’s scrawny, teenage frame only attracted few Division 1 scholarship offers in high school. Cleveland State and Kent State both wanted him to redshirt his freshman season. Boston University even rescinded its scholarship offer upon finding a bigger guard with a more “college-ready” body.

And it did take some time for Walker to adjust to college. He was the third guard behind two 1,100-point scorer seniors as a freshman, averaging just 6.2 points in 29.8 minutes per game. And as a sophomore and junior, he was a secondary, change-of-pace option outside hulking forward Scott Eatherton. “His personality and his confidence level was such that he was much more comfortable in a facilitator role and it worked great for us,” says Bill Coen, Northeastern’s longtime head coach.

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Although he does lead the team and the conference in scoring, learning to shoulder a larger scoring load has been an often uncomfortable assignment for Walker. The senior only attempted 12.2 field goals during each regular season game, when launching over 15 jumpers a night could have improved his professional prospects. “Especially in high school, once it got to senior year when I was kind of the guy on my team, they were always telling me, ‘Shoot the ball!’ Yelling at me, cussing at me. I heard that a lot,” Walker says. “I don’t want to force anything, even though sometimes I think I should take some shots or I should be a little more aggressive.”

Attracting the attention of entire opposing defenses has added another wrinkle to Walker’s thought process. After Michigan State escaped Matthews Arena with a victory, Tom Izzo told reporters that he had instructed Denzel Valentine to eliminate even an inch of breathing room for Northeastern’s centerpiece. “That’s the gameplan for David Walker,” Coen says. “He doesn’t get in a rhythm, he gets no space, play him physical.”

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When that game plan is accomplished, Walker’s brain continues to churn. “You can see it on his face,” says Quincy Ford, Northeastern’s graduate student swingman, second in scoring behind Walker. He feels the gravity of each miss, sometimes hanging his head while retreating to the defensive end, perhaps imagining even greater consequences for his team than in reality. “I try to play the perfect game, but it never happens,” Walker says.

Walker has the added pressure of knowing that NBA scouts are at almost every one of his games, evaluating his every move. “I do think about NBA scouts being at the games,” Walker says. “I try not to think about it, but it always slips in there—If I know I’m not having a great stretch or a great half. I just try stay aggressive. Go get some rebounds, get a steal.” The Indiana Pacers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have frequently sent scouts to Northeastern’s games. Over a third of the league’s teams scouted him in-person this season.

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Northeastern entered conference play with an 8–5 record that included a buzzer-beating road win at then No. 15 Miami, and carried that momentum to a 3–0 star in the league. Then it stumbled, losing eight of its nine games including a befuddling six-game losing streak. Ford missed four of those affairs after sustaining a concussion, further isolating Walker and his whizzing mind and linking him to the Huskies’ fate. Walker and Ford managed to change Northeastern’s pace down the stretch, however, closing out the regular season winning five of its last six games. “You’re never gonna play with this team again,” Walker says. “Live in the moment, enjoy it while you can.”

In the Huskies’ final game of the season, Walker scored 20 points on 8-12 shooting  against Drexel, draining three triples within Northeastern’s late 15-0 run to erase an 11-point deficit and defeat Drexel 61-59. When there’s a crack in a defensive coverage, Walker bursts to open spots on the perimeter and launches without hesitation. He’s made a hoard of defenses pay for lapses. For the many moments he appears to think too much, he flashes brilliance when simply reading, reacting, and going.

The Huskies’ win earned them a 6th-seed and a first-round bye in this weekend’s CAA tournament. A Northeastern victory over 3-seeded Towson, which split their regular season series 1–1, would put it two games away from clinching a second-straight berth to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 1986–87 team that featured Reggie Lewis. Last season, Walker scored 15 points in the Huskies’ Round of 64 loss to Notre Dame.

For now, he’s focused on getting the Huskies back to the Big Dance. When the season closes, he’ll continue to deliberate and prepare for the next stage of his career, hoping that it begins with his name being called in June’s draft. With strong showings like his Notre Dame performance, an aerial dunk display at Florida State and 21 points at Miami, the remaining minutes Walker spends in a Northeastern uniform will only add to an already splendid dossier.

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