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Bill Walker a Welcome Addition in South Florida?

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How many players in the NBA this past season shot at least 50% from the floor, at least 40% from beyond the three-point line, and at least 78% from the free throw line?

Five.

Steve Nash. Mike Miller. Nicolas Batum. Rodrigue Beaubois. And Bill Walker.

That’s four guys making big dollars, and one making the league minimum.

Bill Walker is an intriguing player: He’s young. He’s tall. He’s athletic. He’s explosive. He can defend. And he can shoot.

He’s had those traits his entire life. But nothing has come easy for him. Walker’s path toward achieving his life-time goal of playing in the NBA has been an excruciating one.

He was born in Huntington, West Virginia, the same hometown as childhood best-friend O.J. Mayo. They were born within a month of each other, on October 9th and November 5th of 1987 respectively, making them among the oldest in their class. They were inseparable growing up. Nothing could tear them apart, not even when Mayo was held back a year early in his schooling (this was quite common for young athletes looking to gain a competitive advantage), putting them in different grades with different classmates. They did everything together, including play basketball.

“Me and O.J. come from a place where we haven’t had a lot of opportunities. We picked up basketball and used it as a tool.”

Basketball provided a path to something better, a path they followed with relentless determination.

They developed their skills against older boys in the neighborhood, which was tucked up against the Ohio River.

They started playing basketball at 6 years old. By the time they were 8, they were considered child prodigies.

Craving better competition, as a 13-year-old, Mayo began commuting across the West Virginia/Kentucky border to attend sixth grade at Rose Hill Christian in Ashland, Kentucky, a school of fewer than 100 students about 15 miles from Huntington. Unlike in West Virginia, in Kentucky, a student did not need to be in the ninth grade to play high school basketball. As a seventh grade varsity starter, Mayo averaged 23.1 points per game while playing against older, bigger and more experienced competition.

Walker followed suit the next year. But not without incident.

He and Mayo wanted to play high school ball together. But they also wanted to play the AAU circuit together. The AAU circuit was home to all the high-profile summer exposure camps, and a critical step toward gaining national recognition, more-so than even high school ball itself. It was therefore home to some of the most influential coaches in a youngster’s life. AAU coach Dwaine Barnes had particular influence over Mayo and Walker, so much so that Mayo would live with Barnes for a time and refer to him as his “grandfather.”

“Dwaine came in when we were 9, recognized the ability and was the only one who thought we could make it,” said Mayo. “He took us under his wing. When everyone was outside playing, me and Bill were in the gym for four or five hours a day when we were 9 or 10 years old.”

Walker was to be a ninth grader, technically the start of his high school career while Mayo, having been held back a year, was still an eighth grader. The distinction was critical, since it meant the two would no longer be eligible to play together on Mayo’s 14-and-under AAU team. The two had lead the D1 Greyhounds of Cincinnati to a national championship as teammates the previous summer. And while Mayo was eligible to move up a year in AAU to play alongside Walker, it would have necessitated they both play for a different team, in a different age group, without the virtual promise of an AAU championship, coached by someone other than Barnes.

Walker’s mother, at the urging of Barnes, attempted to register her son at Rose Hill as an eighth grader. But all the eighth grade spots were filled. So he was forced to enroll as a ninth grader.

Mayo and Walker led Rose Hill to to its first Kentucky state tournament in school history that year, during which Walker played in 16 games from Dec. 3, 2002 to Jan. 25, 2003.

During the course of the year, the Walker camp continued to express the desire for him to be held back. Barnes demanded that Rose Hill place Walker in the eighth grade for the second semester. Seeing that he had just passed one semester of his ninth grade year, Rose Hill denied the request.

With his chances gone, Barnes urged Walker’s mother to dis-enroll her son from Rose Hill following the team’s 16th Region All “A” Classic championship, in pursuit of a school which would allow him to register for the final few months of the school year as an eighth grader and, in turn, allow him to play on his (and Mayo’s) AAU team.

In February 2003, at Barnes’ insistence, a 15-year-old Walker moved with his mother and sister to Cincinnati, where Walker transferred from his ninth-grade year at Rose Hill to complete his academic year as an eighth grader at North College Hill High School, a school about eight times the size and 140 miles up the Ohio River from his previous school in Ashland, and right across the street from Barnes’ home. Mayo followed suit in April 2003, moving in with Barnes in the process.

Walker suffered a significant setback on the AAU circuit that summer, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. After surgery, he wound up missing just five months while rehabbing, including a chunk of his freshman season of high school at North College Hill. But he came back to the basketball court, as an immediate freshman starter, with full force and fury.

Together, Mayo and Walker ripped through their high school competition at North College Hill. Both became nationally known. Mayo received most of the accolades, although Walker out-shined him on many nights.

Mayo was the more polished scorer, with more consistent three-point range, and had the better ball-handling and passing skills. He was billed as the next LeBron James. He was being called “The Next One” in homage to James being “The Chosen One.”

Walker was the taller, thicker, more explosive player, with unparalleled athleticism and leaping ability. He drew widespread comparisons Vince Carter. At games, public address announcers heralded Walker with nicknames like “Skywalker” and “Million-Dollar Bill” for his high-flying acts and rim-rattling dunks.

As sophomores and juniors in 2004-05 and 2005-06, respectively, Walker and Mayo led North College Hill to back-to-back Ohio Division III state titles.

Walker averaged 19.6 points and 11.4 rebounds in helping North College Hill to a 27-1 overall record as a sophomore in 2004-05, which included the state championship and a No. 17 final ranking in the USA Today Super 25 high school rankings.

His 2005-06 season was even more impressive. Walker finished the 2006 season averaging 21.7 points and 10.1 rebounds, highlighted by a 50-point, 25-rebound performance in a 100-68 victory over Covington (Ky.) Holmes. His North College Hill team (26-1) finished third in the USA Today Super 25 high school rankings. For his efforts during the 2006 state tournament, he was named Most Valuable Player and was selected the USA Today National Player of the Week on March 27, 2006.

Bill Walker and O.J. Mayo

Bill Walker (left) and O.J. Mayo (right) at ABCD camp in Teaneck, New Jersey in 2004

Walker’s exploits during his Rose Hill and North College Hill days could be felt beyond just his high school play. At Vaccaro’s ABCD summer camp in Teaneck, New Jersey – the premier high school basketball camp at the time, featuring the finest high school players in the country, a rite-of-passage for future NBA stars such as Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Kevin Love, Amare Stoudemire, Greg Oden and Dwight Howard, among many others – Walker was the only three-time All Star game MVP ever (2004-06).

By the end of his junior season in 2006, an 18-year-old Walker was a consensus five-star college prospect. Rivals.com rated his as the seventh best prospect in the nation — behind only Michael Beasley, Eric Gordon, Derrick Rose, Mayo, Kyle Singler, and Kevin Love; ahead of Blake Griffin, James Harden and DeAndre Jordan, among others — with his scouting report reading “An elite athlete on any level, Walker has the potential to be a big time NBA small forward. His power and explosiveness make him unstoppable around the basket. His skills with the ball are steadily improving, and he has the tools to be a multi-position defensive stopper.”

The plan for Walker and Mayo when they transferred to North College Hill in 2003 was clear. They would follow in the footsteps of Ohio prodigy LeBron James, and jump straight from high school to the NBA.

That was before the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement took effect in July 2005. The agreement instituted a new multi-part rule related to draft eligibility: (i) to enter the draft, a player must be at least 19 years-old on December 31 of the year of the NBA draft, and (ii) at least one NBA season must have passed either from the player graduated from high school or from when his graduating class graduated from high school. The first wasn’t a problem; they would each be 19-years-old by the time they graduated high school in 2007. The second, however, was a major problem; since their high school class was set to graduate in 2007, they wouldn’t be eligible for the NBA draft until 2008. The new rule effectively shattered their plans.

Then, on July 10, 2006, just three days after winning his third consecutive MVP award at ABCD Camp, Walker was dealt another huge blow. He was ruled ineligible for play as a high school senior. His two semesters at Rose Hill, combined with the six semesters at North College Hill, had completed Walker’s eligibility.

According to Ohio High School Athletic Association bylaws, “after a student completes the eighth grade, or is otherwise eligible for high school athletics, the student shall be eligible for eight semesters taken in order of attendance, whether the student participates [in athletics] or not.” Walker had played a year as a ninth-grader at Rose Hill before enrolling at North College Hill as an eighth-grader in February 2003.

“Based on the information we have received, Bill has exhausted his eligibility because he has participated at the high school level for eight semesters, which is the maximum permitted according to our bylaws,” Commissioner Dan Ross said in a statement. “While we certainly feel for Bill and his family, the bylaws are specific.”

Walker was ineligible to play his senior season of high school because of his former AAU coach’s insistence that he be transferred back a grade several years before. He had to figure out where he was going to play basketball for the 2006-07 season. By rule of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, he and Mayo were definitely not going to be playing high school basketball together. By rule of the collective bargaining agreement, he was definitely not going to be playing in the NBA for at least two more years.

Both Walker and Mayo considered challenging the NBA’s eligibility rules in an attempt to register for the 2007 NBA draft, despite the strong indications they were giving outwardly that they were going to college.

Mayo’s claim would have been based on the fact that he was held back a year early in his schooling, and would have graduated in 2006 but for that, and that he has played high school ball since he was in the 7th grade.

Walker seemingly had the stronger case. His claim could have been that his graduating class, by decision of the Ohio High School Athletic Association in announcing he had no eligibility for his senior year, was in fact the class of 2006.

But neither player formally challenged their eligibility. Instead, approaching their senior years of high school, they made plans to play college basketball together, at the time considering Southern Cal, the University of Florida and Kansas State, where former University of Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, who had been recruiting them for years, was recently named head coach.

Mayo decided to move back home to Huntington, WV and played out his senior year at Huntington High School.

Walker, ineligible for high school play, considered two choices: enroll at a prep school for one year, or graduate high school early and start playing college ball as soon as possible.

After receiving interest from many NCAA teams, including Cincinnati, Connecticut, Illinois, Syracuse, Southern California and Texas, Walker decided to follow Huggins, who had moved to Kansas State. Huggins was doing a masterful job at recruiting, and it was thought that K-State would finally end its NCAA tournament drought after 10 years.

“I wanted to play for Bob Huggins. If he would have stayed at Cincinnati, I would have been a Bearcat,” said Walker. “It’s his intensity. He wants to win, and he takes that to another level. He’s not going to let anybody slack, and he’s going to jump on everybody the same, every time. It’s not like because I’m who I am, he’s not going to say anything to me. He’s going to get on me like I’m the twelfth man. That’s what I came for. I know with his work ethic together with mine, we can do some great things.”

Rather than spend the year away from basketball, Walker had in mind to qualify for play for Kansas State during what would have otherwise been the middle of his senior year of high school. He enrolled in an accelerated program through North College Hill and received his high school diploma a semester early. He then took a standardized test, received a qualifying score and got through the NCAA Clearinghouse all before Dec. 16, the first day that a mid-year student-athlete can become eligible for athletic aid, practice and competition.

“I was disappointed, but I couldn’t let it break me,” Walker says of the OHSAA’s ruling. “I’ll always remember all the people that came to the games there and the fans that appreciated us. I was happy that I could bring some excitement to the community. But I had to find another way, another route, and I did that.”

Walker officially enrolled at Kansas State as a part-time student in order to become eligible to play in December of 2006, nine games into the 2006-07 season. He was eligible to play at Kansas State on Dec. 17 against Kennesaw State, and despite only practicing one day, the previous day, he scored 15 points on 6-10 shooting in 22 minutes.

He had an immediate impact on the team, averaging 13.2 points and 5.4 rebounds in 26.8 minutes during his first five games. Fans hailed him as the player who would drag K-State basketball out of the dark ages.

There were continued rumblings that Walker would attempt to challenge the NBA’s draft rule in 2007, after what would have been his senior season of high school but was instead to become his freshman season in college. Many NBA scouts at the time had him pegged as a potential top-5 pick in the draft.

At 6’6″ and 220 pounds, even before arriving in Kansas, Walker was about as much a sure thing as a high school basketball player could be. His game needed refinement, as that of most players his age do, but there was only one significant question about his future as an NBA-quality talent: Was the torn right A.C.L. he had suffered in 2003, from which he had made a complete recovery, cause for concern as a potential health risk?

That question was answered almost immediately. Only five minutes into his sixth college game, he shifted sharply in a January 6, 2007 contest against Texas A&M and felt a familiar pain. He had ruptured the A.C.L. in his left knee.

His freshman season was abruptly over, relegated to eating popcorn on the bench. Any dreams about taking a shot at the 2007 NBA draft were over. Yet another painful surgery and rehab stint lied ahead for a youngster who had just turned 19.

Walker’s injury killed K-State’s chances at a tournament birth, despite the team’s impressive season overall. In fact, the school felt particularly slighted to be the first major-conference team not school make the NCAA tournament after winning 20 games overall and 10 games in conference. K-State ended the season 23–12 (10–6), the most victories from a Wildcat team since 1987–88, when they lost to the Kansas Jayhawks in the Elite Eight of the 1988 NCAA Tournament.

Mayo had given a soft verbal commitment to join Walker playing for Huggins at Kansas State for the 2007-08 season, but retracted it when Huggins announced he would take the head coaching position at West Virginia in April 2007. Mayo elected to play at USC. Walker opted to stay.

The NCAA granted Walker a redshirt, allowing him to repeat his freshman season at Kansas State.

Walker was efficient in his redshirt freshman season, averaging 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in 31 games, but he was again eclipsed by a star teammate, this time his roommate Michael Beasley.

But by no means was Walker a sideshow. While not showing the electrifying Vince Carter-like athleticism he displayed in high school, partly due to the toll the injuries had taken on his knees and partly due to his added mass, Walker was still an explosive athlete. He went on to carry K-State during stretches of the team’s first round upset of Mayo-led USC in the 2008 NCAA tournament, while Beasley was on the bench dealing with foul trouble. He wound up scoring 22 points on 7-12 shooting (including 3-4 from three-point range) in 30 minutes, out-dueling Mayo, who scored 20 points on 6-16 shooting in all 40 minutes of game action, in the process. The performance vaulted Walker back onto the radars of several NBA scouts.

Walker, Beasley and Mayo all entered the 2008 NBA draft together, with Beasley a sure-fire top-two pick, Mayo a sure-fire top-five pick and Walker a possible lottery selection.

But during a pre-draft workout with the Golden State Warriors, Walker suffered yet another knee injury. This time it was a torn meniscus in his right knee. While not a serious injury, relatively speaking, it was cause for major concern.

Having already suffered three significant knee surgeries, his dreams of being a first round pick, let alone a lottery pick, were shattered. In the evaluations of most executives, he was too big of a risk.

The Wizards eventually selected him with the 47th overall pick in the second round of the 2008 NBA draft, and subsequently traded him to the Celtics for cash considerations. The Celtics signed him in August and, despite continuing to show incredible explosiveness, relegated him to the NBA Development League after the 2008-09 preseason. He spent the better part of season playing some impressive ball in the country’s inferior professional league. Averaging 30.9 minutes over the course of 15 games, he shot 56% from the field and 40% from three-point range, en route to 18.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.

Walker was to finally get his shot during training camp with the Celtics in 2009. Until, of course, he again injured his right knee. An MRI revealed a re-torn meniscus, which required him to miss training camp as well as the first month of the regular season, in the process derailing his chances to make the squad. It was Walker’s third operation on his right knee, bringing the total number surgeries for the body’s two most weight-bearing joints to four.

That sealed his fate.

Upon his return, despite the obvious potential, Walker was no longer in the Celtics’ plans. They were busy attempting to repeat as NBA champions. At the trade deadline this past season, he once again was traded, this time to New York as part of the package deal that sent Nate Robinson to Boston.

With the Knicks looking to overhaul their roster this off-season – in much the same way the Heat plan to – head coach Mike D’Antoni basically used this past season to conduct live, in-game tryouts for everyone on the roster.

Walker again responded in a big way.

In his time with the Knicks, Walker shot 51.8% from the field, 43.1% from beyond the three-point line, and 78.7% from the free throw line, averaging 11.9 points and 3.1 rebounds in 27.4 minutes per game. In the last game of the season, against the Raptors in Toronto, he scored a career-high 28 points on 8-17 from the field, including 6-10 from three-point range and 6-7 from the free throw line.

Walker’s is truly an unbelievable story. Despite his numerous surgeries, he remains a freakish athlete, having performed an array of highlight reel dunks last season that would have you believe his injuries are surely behind him.

At just 22 years of age, and commanding nothing more than a minimum salary contract, it is certainly a risk the Heat should take. That is, if it were possible.

The problem, after this big long soliloquy, is that he remains under non-guaranteed contract with the Knicks, at the minimum salary, for each of the next two seasons. However, his contract becomes fully guaranteed for next season if he is not waived prior to July 8. Walker will no doubt be a side show on that day, but an important one nonetheless, of which the Heat should take note. If the Knicks opt in favor of the added cap space, Pat Riley should certainly place a call.

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  1. CB
    June 23rd, 2010 at 09:32 | #1

    I gotta say man, I dont always agree with the the opinions presented in your work, but you dominate the other south florida sports writers. Not sure if you read Hyde’s article on Beasley yesterday, the content was simply embarrassing/amateurish. I like Winderman, but he is the most negative writer to read to a fault. He lets his pessimism cloud analytical thinking. Very interesting perspective on Bill Walker. Someone is going to take Beasley from us and give us more than cap space in return. We’ll get some pieces. My perfect world actually has us getting Lebron and keeping Beas (if we cant trade him for Oden) at 5m/yr and having real dollars to fill out the roster. Wade/Lebron and a more mature Beas could be insane.

    • June 23rd, 2010 at 09:34 | #2

      What? You don’t always agree with my opinions?

  2. mike
    June 23rd, 2010 at 13:34 | #3

    i think there will be servicable players at 18 but heat has no idea what free agents will be here july 8th

  3. Heat-Struck
    June 23rd, 2010 at 15:48 | #4

    Hats off to Albert for his very extensive and thorough game analysis. Someone on Ira’s blog mentioned this blog, and after a few readings, I found my new blog home. The only problem is that its a bit lonely. I guess all it takes is some time before more and more people show up.

  4. SecondtoNone
    June 24th, 2010 at 00:04 | #5

    True that Heat-Struck lol

  5. Steven
    July 5th, 2010 at 03:47 | #6

    I know this is very late but I was looking up Bill Walker and this post came up. I just wanted to write that Bill Walker had another surgery that you didn’t note. It was on his meniscus and it occurred just before last season’s training camp was going to start. That basically derailed his chances with the Celtics last season. He was a second-year pro who had gotten very little time as a rookie–though he was impressive enough during practices that Garnett publicly praised him and told people to watch out for him–who now was going to miss all of training camp, the exhibition games schedule and the first month of the season. He wasn’t going to have the chance to work himself into the rotation with almost zero game action, exhibition or otherwise, for the coaching staff to go off on, not when they were trying to win every game.

    My point is, not you but others could look at his games played total and paltry statistics with the Celtics and think he wasn’t good enough to see the floor. I would disagree and say injuries played a major part.

  6. July 5th, 2010 at 04:27 | #7

    @Steven
    Thanks for the feedback, Steven. I’ve edited the post to reflect the latest in his unfortunate string of injuries. I would love to see what he’s capable of if given the opportunity in a full season of health.

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