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Questions surround Jabari Walker in transition from CU Buffs to pros

Versatile, talented forward not a slam-dunk NBA prospect

Jabari Walker and the Colorado Buffaloes will try to extend their five-game winning streak at home against Arizona State.  (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Jabari Walker and the Colorado Buffaloes will try to extend their five-game winning streak at home against Arizona State. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Down the stretch, as the Colorado men’s basketball team was doing its best to put together a late run that might erase the uneven play that marked the season’s start, Jabari Walker was showing why he is such a tantalizing pro prospect.

In five consecutive games — beginning with a home loss against Oregon on Feb. 3 and continuing through four straight wins — Walker posted double-doubles. That stretch included what at the time was a career-best 15 rebounds in consecutive road wins Oregon State and Cal (Walker later set a new career-high with 16 boards against Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament), plus a career-high-matching 24 points at Oregon State. In those four wins that culminated that run, Walker didn’t miss a free throw (26-for-26).

In short, Walker was putting it all together. Ye the season certainly didn’t begin that way.

During that dominant stretch run, CU head coach Tad Boyle, as well as Walker, admitted they shared discussions about the pressure Walker was putting upon himself early in the season. In the wake of Walker’s father, former NBA veteran Samaki Walker, telling ESPN last week that his son is “all in” for the NBA draft and has “no intentions on returning to school,” it seems Walker’s two-season tenure at CU is over, although he has until June 1 to change his mind.

Clearly Walker’s 6-foot-9 frame, athleticism, and shooting touch provide a combination intriguing to any front office. Yet plenty of questions remain regarding Walker’s viability to latch on to an NBA roster. Here is a look at his three biggest hurdles, and perhaps the three issues he must address as he packs his bags for next week’s NBA Draft combine in Chicago.

Under pressure

Playing in a limited role off the bench as a freshman on a senior-heavy team during the 2020-21 season, Walker thrived, averaging 7.6 points in 14.2 minutes while shooting a stellar .523 from 3-point range (.526 overall).

Tasked with applying that production into a bigger role as a sophomore, Walker didn’t exactly stumble out of the gate. Yet it wasn’t a smooth transition, either. Walker’s long-range touch deserted him through the season’s first 15 games, as he posted a .214 mark from the 3-point arc (9-for-42).

Certainly the early stages of the season were not a complete disaster (Walker’s 7-for-11, 22-point, 11-rebound night at UCLA on Dec. 1 counts as a season highlight). But it could represent a red flag for pro scouts. Even though Walker is unlikely to be challenged with becoming the top scorer and rebounder for whatever team gives him his next basketball home — and he clearly turned it on in the second half of the season — watching Walker go 13-for-32 (1-for-8 on 3-pointers) against a trio of Paradise Jam foes consisting of such noted basketball powers as Southern Illinois, Duquesne, and Brown makes it easy to question just how smoothly Walker will handle the upward mobility into his next role.

Finding the handle

Boyle trusted Walker enough to give him an opportunity to make plays for others and gave him the freedom, at times in transition, to bring the ball up the floor. The results were less than stellar.

Walker finished the season with 41 assists against a team-leading 76 turnovers. Despite being a secondary or even tertiary ball-handler, Walker’s 2.3 turnovers per game outpaced the Buffs’ No. 2 turnover leader, backup, ball-handling guard KJ Simpson (2.2 per game). Walker posted seven games with at least four turnovers. By comparison, the Buffs’ other primary post player, Evan Battey, recorded just one game with at least four turnovers and had only one other game with as many as three turnovers.

Again, Walker showed signs of improvement down the stretch. Walker’s only two full games without a turnover occurred during the season’s final three games, and over the final four games he recorded 11 assists against five turnovers. But ball security will remain a next-level question.

Lining up

The debate whether he’s actually ready for the next level notwithstanding, exactly where would Walker fit in an NBA lineup? At CU he most commonly played at the four, but he needs much more powerful definition on his 6-foot-9, 215-pound frame to fill that role at the next level. As Walker does not turn 20 until late July, that’s a hurdle he still very much can overcome. His skill set is more suited to a small forward role, yet his low assist/high turnover rate, combined with the fact he didn’t display a knack for being able to create his own shots, doesn’t exactly mesh with the expectations of an NBA 3-wing. The trend toward position-less basketball might be a boon to Walker, but defining his place on the floor will be a challenge.

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