Bill Walker a welcome addition in South Florida?
I know that it’s draft time and that I should be focusing my every word on it. But you can get that kind of information from just about anywhere. So in my eternal quest to be both creative and thorough, I thought I might focus on the bench for a moment.
Heat fans are starting to get their first few doses of bad news, not the least of which is Raja Bell’s pursuit of bigger than minimum free agent dollars.
The Heat will need a handful of quality low-cost players to fit under the cap if the master plan works out. Losing Bell would be a small, but impactful, blow to the team’s depth. So I started scouring the landscape of free agent alternatives. My search has taken me to the far reaches of my own sanity, whereupon I’ve stumbled upon an intriguing possibility.
Let me ask you this: How many players in the NBA this past season shot at least 50% from the floor, at least 40% from beyond the arc, and at least 78% from the free throw line?
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 presents an intriguing possibility. He’s young. He’s cheap. He’s tall. He’s chiseled. He’s athletic. He’s explosive. He can defend. And he can shoot.
His road to the NBA has been an excruciating one.
He was born in Huntington, W.V., the same hometown as childhood best-friend O.J. Mayo.
Walker and Mayo were born less than a month apart. They did everything together, including play basketball. So when Mayo was held back a year early in his schooling, despite both him and Walker being good students, it made no difference at the time. They continued on together, with basketball a priority. In fact, many speculated Mayo was held back for basketball reasons – he was already amongst the oldest in his class, having just missed the September 1 cut-off for grade determination; he’d now be nearly two years older than his classmates when the time came for high school basketball.
Walker and Mayo quickly developed a reputation as two of the best prospects in the country, regardless of age.
Walker was the taller, thicker, more explosive player. He was an incredible leaper who also showed flashes of NBA three-point range. He drew widespread comparisons Vince Carter.
Mayo was the more polished scorer, with more consistent three-point range, and had the better ball-handling and passing skills.
Naturally, they shredded whatever competition they faced as grade schoolers.
Craving better competition, as a 13-year-old, Mayo commuted across the West Virginia/Kentucky border to attend Rose Hill Christian School in Ashland, Ky. In recent years, the school had gained notoriety for being very competitive and a recruiting hotbed for high school basketball. In Kentucky, an athlete does not have to be in ninth grade to play high school basketball. So, as a seventh-grader, his high school basketball career began.
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 to gaining national recognition. It was therefore also 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 referred to him at the time as his “grandfather” despite having no actual blood relationship.
Walker was to be a ninth grader, technically the start of his high school career, while Mayo 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 were AAU teammates, leading the D1 Greyhounds of Cincinnati to a national championship, 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.
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, he transferred to North College Hill High School in Ohio, less than 10 miles outside of Cincinnati. Mayo followed suit in April 2003.
Both became nationally known at North College Hill High School. Mayo received most of the accolades, although Walker out-shined him many nights. At games, public address announcers heralded him with nicknames like Skywalker and Million-Dollar Bill for his high-flying acts and rim-rattling dunks.
At Vaccaro’s ABCD summer camp in Teaneck, New Jersey – the premier high school basketball camp 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 is the only three-time All Star game MVP.
Together, Mayo and Walker ripped through its high school competition. As a sophomore and junior in 2005 and 2006, respectively, Walker helped North College Hill to back-to-back Ohio Division III state titles. He was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2006 State Tournament, averaged 22.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game en route to helping his team to the title. For his efforts during the tournament, he was selected the USA Today National Player of the Week on March 27, 2006. His North College Hill team finished third in the USA Today Super 25 High School rankings that year, with Walker averaging 21.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
By the end of his junior season, 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.”
Both Walker and Mayo had been considered locks at the time to make the leap straight from high school to the NBA after the next school year, avoiding college altogether, but the new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NBA and its players, which was implemented in July 2005, instituted a rule that a player must be at least 19 years-old on December 31 of the year of the NBA draft (being so much older than their classmates, both would have qualified in 2007), and secondly that at least one NBA season must have passed either from when he graduated from high school or from when his graduating class graduated from high school. The new rule effectively curtailed their plans.
He and Mayo had decided 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.
Then, in July 2006, Walker 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.”
This was a chaotic time for Walker. The NBA had just changed its eligibility requirements after his sophomore year. He went on to have an incredible junior season that, along with a strong senior year, would have made him a lock as a lottery pick in the 2007 draft, and now he was being stripped of his senior season because of his former AAU coach’s insistence that he be held back a grade several years before.
Adding to the chaos was the fact that both Walker and Mayo were thought to be considering 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 was 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 had the stronger case for arguing that he “would have graduated in 2006″ because the Ohio High School Athletic Association, in announcing he had no eligibility for his senior year, had just announced that he should have been a senior the past year.
But the 2007 NBA Draft wasn’t an immediate concern. Walker first had to figure out where he was going to play basketball for the coming year. By rule of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, he and Mayo were definitely not going to be playing high school basketball together.
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, instead became focused squarely on college basketball. After receiving interest from many NCAA teams, including Cincinnati, Connecticut, Illinois, Syracuse, Southern California and Texas, Walker decided to follow Huggins 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.
“We are extremely excited about having Bill in our program,” said Huggins at the time. “He is one of the most explosive athletes that I have seen on the high school circuit in many years. He is a player who can tremendously affect the outcome of games on both ends of the court. And to top it off, he is a great kid. He is an outstanding student and a great teammate.”
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.
Walker officially enrolled at Kansas State as a part-time student in order to be 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.
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.
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 can 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 a torn A.C.L. he had suffered during the summer AAU circuit in 2003 before moving to Ohio, 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 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. Any dreams about taking a shot at the 2007 NBA draft were over. Yet another painful surgery and rehab stint lied ahead.
Walker’s injury killed K-State’s chances at a tournament birth despite an impressive season overall. The school felt particularly snubbed due to the fact it was the first major-conference team not to make the NCAA tournament after winning 20 games overall and 10 games in conference. Kansas State ended the season 23–12 (10–6)–the most victories from a Wildcat team since 1987–1988, a year that saw them lose 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. Mayo elected to play at USC. Walker opted to stay.
The NCAA granted him a redshirt, allowing him to repeat his freshman season at Kansas State. Walker was efficient, averaging 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in 31 games, but he was again eclipsed by a star teammate, this time 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 have taken on his knee and partly do 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 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 and Beasley entered the 2008 NBA draft together, with Beasley a sure-fire top-two pick and Walker a possible lottery selection as well.
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 — Dwyane Wade, by way of example, has played his entire NBA career after having the meniscus in his left knee completely removed in 2002 — 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 47th in 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 D-League after the 2008-09 preseason. He spent the better part of season playing some impressive ball in the country’s inferior professional league. In 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.
Then, on the first day of training camp for the Celtics the following season, Walker left practice with an injured 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, and derailed 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 has shot 51.8% from the field and 43.1% from beyond the arc, averaging 11.9 points and 3.1 rebounds in 27 minutes per game. In the last game of the season, 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, against the Raptors in Toronto.
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. Walker delivers the Nate-Robinson-esque scoring punch from off the bench that the Heat so desperately need. And he does it with better defense and the versatility in his game to play either swing position.
At just 22 years of age and commanding nothing more than the minimum player salary, it’s certainly a risk the Heat should absolutely take. It is conceivable that Walker could receive some major minutes in South Florida, both in a backup role to Dwyane Wade and in his more natural small forward position.
The problem, after this big long soliloquy, is that he remains under contract to the Knicks. Walker has a non-guaranteed contract for the next two seasons at the league minimum. However, his contract becomes fully guaranteed 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, that the Heat should take note of. If the Knicks opt in favor of the added cap space, Pat Riley should certainly place a call.