On Feb. 4, Chris Walker will be cleared to play for Florida at long last, and the good news is Florida doesn’t need him. It most certainly can use him, this 6-foot-10 five-star prospect sidelined all year, but it can use him in the way that a nearly flawless pile of risotto can use the imported black truffle flakes shaved on top of it.
The Gators have won 11 straight and were a Final Four contender before the NCAA officially announced Walker was cleared after serving a 12-game penalty for receiving preferential treatment from five people, including two agents. The up-and-down season at Kentucky suggested Florida was the most reliably elite team in the SEC, and a defense ranked No. 10 nationally in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency rankings suggested they were formidable no matter where they played.
Florida has lost two games all season despite injuries to just about everyone, most notably leading scorer Casey Prather. Because of the adversity they've already overcome, the Gators seem fully formed before the No. 6 recruit in the Class of 2013 became eligible to play.
“I think right now, our guys appear to be in a good place,” coach Billy Donovan said at a news conference Monday. “But for me, it’s all about our guys trying to get better and improve.”
How much improvement will Walker need? At the moment everyone has to take Donovan’s word for it, and he doesn’t even know. Walker apparently showed up weighing about 203 pounds and added seven to 10 to that. Donovan said Walker is “more prepared” than he was a couple weeks ago, walking into a team with 60 offensive sets, of which he knew zero.
But Donovan said he doesn’t know how ready Walker is or how many minutes he can offer immediately.
“My biggest fear for Chris is you have a highly exposed player and sometimes when a guy isn’t playing, the ‘legend of Chris Walker’ grows greater than who he really is,” Donovan said. “Chris Walker now is, ‘Oh my, this guy is going to end up being Kevin Garnett,’ and he’s not that. And I think whenever he gets able to play, if that’s their expectation of Chris Walker they’re going to be very, very disappointed because he’s not that.
“I hope there is at least a level of understanding in terms of how much he’s missed, and if anybody is expecting him to be savior it would really be unfair. He’s got a lot of growing to do. He’s got a lot of physical growing, mental growing, he’s got to understand the college game a lot more. There’s so much that’s in front of him to get better at and I just hope people will not look at it and say, ‘Wow, I was expecting something different.’”
According to the NCAA release, Walker "accepted free cell phones and service, airfare, lodging, meals and apparel" as a prospect. He is required to donate the $270 he received from agents to charity and do 80 hours of community service. So that's about what Chris Walker took.
Now it's about what he can offer. And he offers Florida depth and a potential impact player contributing to an already elite team. That’s good news. But he might not offer much, either. So the better news is that Florida was fine without him, too.