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2023 NBA Draft: Jarace Walker, Captain Ahab, and the Insurmountability of the Margins

The University of Houston product has an NBA-ready body with the game and motor to match.

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Birmingham Photo by Alex Slitz/Getty Images

August 14, 2021 was a return to form for the Slam Summer Classic after it had been canceled the previous year due to COVID-19 restrictions. As an intern there at the time, I was in charge of handing out dunk contest scorecards and getting the top high school prospects in attendance from where the bus arrived to the iconic court on West 4th Street. It was an extremely hot day, and no one really knew what to expect. Writers and camera crew alike got shots up as we waited in anticipation. When the players finally arrived, no one was shooting anymore. There was no longer a level of calm and the expected feeling of childlike joy was gone.

Then, Jarace Walker showed up. He hyped up everyone, including New York City legend Hansel Emmanuel before eventually throwing him the lob on Emmanuel’s dunk contest-winning free throw line hammer. That would’ve been enough to make me a fan.

The next day, due to inclement weather reports, the Classic’s headlining game was moved indoors to Gaucho’s gym in Brooklyn. Again, as an intern, I was left in charge of handing out food and drinks to the set of talented players who were years younger than me. Throughout the day, I had tons of people asking me for stuff I didn’t have, from extra towels to protein bars, and I had to fervently apologize before offering the Powerade bottles I had been left with.

When the food did eventually show up, people swarmed. It became chaos and the booth was left a mess. As the day ended and I was left cleaning up before we were shepherded out of the gym that had wanted us out hours earlier, I was approached by a very large human being. After taking hundreds of pictures with fans from the neighborhood who had stormed the court the second the final buzzer sounded, Jarace approached the booth and thanked me, and spoke with me quickly about how much fun the events had been before he was asked to run to make the bus back to their hotel. No other player did this. But, that is who Walker is; he is a connector. And there’s nowhere that shows up more than in his play.

Jarace Walker starred at the Slam Summer Classic along with draft mates like Keyonte George, Dariq Whitehead, and others

Tower Defense Games and the Crowd Controlling of Basketball

I want to switch the order we normally do things here because I think the easiest way to explain the intricacies of Walker’s play is to start with the theory behind who he is and not what he does. Here’s a quick comparison.

I love tower defense games. I love the long build to something that tanks your screen’s refresh rate to go along with the actual strategy of your plan not just for current rounds but also for the future. Almost any good tower defense game will feature a tower that can slow advancing enemies. It usually does negligible direct damage but becomes the linchpin for surviving the overabundance of sprites on screen. Walker is that. He is the Snow Pea in Plants vs Zombies. He is the Glue Tower from Bloons. Jarace Walker is the ultimate defensive deterrent.

Defensively, Walker is the only player that stacks up to Victor Wembenyama in the help department. Walker is an instinctive player who is always in the right place at the right time, covering passing lanes, rim runs, and taking over matchups for his occasionally overmatched teammates. In the clip below, two Houston teammates rush the corner while the initial defender fails to rotate to the baseline to cover the dunker's spot. Walker, in about three shuffles of his feet, prevents a kick out to the corner, an escape under the basket, or a lob, and then swats the ball off the glass and rebounds his block to get the break off and running while UCF has to play with one man behind the play.

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These types of plays are not super special. They’re reactionary for sure, athletic and impressive as well. While they may not be special, they’re something far more important: repeatable and needed. Basketball is, after all, a team sport and while you need a capable passer to involve all five active participants on offense, you also need a quick fixer on defense to make mistakes disappear.

These kinds of players are also usually those that develop into borderline defensive player of the year candidates if all goes well. Think of Bam Adebayo’s ability to not just survive but excel on a switch that looks like a mismatch, or of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s swooping recoveries on help side blocks, or Draymond Green’s pre-rotations to protect the rim even when the paint is undermanned and prevent an iso from manifesting. Laying all of these comparisons at Walker’s feet is obviously hyperbolic, but it’s important to remember that the best defenders all have this ability not just to lock down one player but to assist everyone on half of a game’s plays. Walker doesn’t just subtract from an opponent’s offense, he divides the possibilities.

Oh, and as far as special goes, the amount of space Walker can cover on a blitz after a slipped screen is terrifying. We’re talking cryptid levels of advancement and retreat into the coverage of the crease. Watch how Cincinnati can’t even take advantage of a fully open paint because Walker has delayed any passes entering the 3-point line. This type of stuff pops off his type and, more importantly, it’s regular. He does stuff like this so regularly, it’s honestly absurd.

Since ranting about rotation is bound to wear on some of you, I’m glad to report that Jarace’s ability to attack passing lanes and harass ball handlers who think he’s not close enough to make a play is also at an infuriatingly high level. This is his selling point. Jarace Walker is an off-ball defensive monster. I think he’s one of the few prospects that can really hold something over Wemby’s head. While Wembanyama can leverage his length into absolutely shutting down anything near him, I think I’d rather have the guy that can play a high wall as effectively as a drop scheme or a blitz and can camouflage any of those at any time.

As an on-ball defender, Walker is impressive although not game-breaking in the same way he is as a roamer. His stance is strong and his use of his core strength to just outmuscle opponents after he gets to their spot before they do is a fascinating mind game that has broken a couple of overzealous forwards and bigs. His side-to-side agility limits his ability as a real one-through-five switchable Swiss army knife, but he can survive there for long enough to provide the support I hope I’ve made clear I love.

For anyone willing with an hour or so of time on their hands, I, as the Scouting Sommelier, would like to recommend Houston’s matchup against the Miami Hurricanes for the whole Jarace Walker experience.

An Inoffensive Offense: Surviving the “Bag Talk” Mindset

If you want to see Walker taking six or seven dribbles on an island, you are a sicko and should go straight to jail like you rolled three straight doubles in Monopoly. That is not, and should not be Walker’s game. He’s not a self-creator or an isolation scorer. He had a couple of thought-provoking clips of turnaround jumpers and post creation, but it was used so rarely that it’s not worth considering at this point.

Where Jarace really thrives on offense is as a playmaker, especially off the short roll. We’re not talking just lobs either. Check out this bullet to a corner shooter after the pick and roll gets blown up. This is super impressive stuff and day one playing time worthy. Clearly, if you’re in the running for a top ten pick, you’ll get there anyway, but this is the stuff everyone wants out of their roll man: fast decisions, accurate and tactical movements, and the self-belief to go for it.

His playmaking is really what keeps Walker afloat on offense. He’s a decent screen setter, using his build to really shut down chasers when he gets his feet set, but he is certainly not a shooter. The shoot doesn’t look terrible, but it’s a long term goal, not an immediate addition. He made 35 of his 101 attempts from distance in college, but he went on dizzying cold streaks, like when he shot 9/29 from 3 during the NCAA Tournament during March Madness. He also shot only 66% from the free throw line, once again hinting that the shot may not be a quick carryover.

That is the main wart in Walker’s game. The ultimate connector is not so adept at disrupting the on-court flow he helped establish. It’s not like this is a developmental anchor, it just means that on offense, he will likely be a product of the system he plays in. He has strengths and weaknesses like any other, but they limit his scoring potential. Luckily, scoring isn’t everything.

Moby Dick and the Pursuit of the Unachievable

I’ve spoken myself into Walker so heavily throughout my film review and general scouting. We often end up looking for the reasons a prospect will fail to avoid the crushing defeat of being wrong, so it’s fitting that I’m all in on the player that will be, at worst, a rocket powered connective defender that we’ve seen litter contender’s starting lineups for, well, ever. We hunt for perfect prospects in the hope that we can brag about being right about some shot in the dark we took on the home run swing guy that actually became what we thought he could be. Jarace Walker is not that.

The obvious prototype and comparison would be Draymond Green, with his fierce defensive communication and clean up crew mentality, as well as the deficiencies in his offensive game and reliance on playmaking to buoy his output, but I think the right comparison is one more recently uncovered. I want you all to think back to who Aaron Gordon was before he was in Denver. He was a near dunk contest winner who had gone fifth in an underwhelming top half of the lottery (except for Joel Embiid, calm down guys) and just couldn’t put together his identity with the puzzle pieces he had in front of him. There was the 3-point specialist small forward Gordon, the pure power forward working in a congested paint, and the small ball five who tried some insane stuff to get to the rim. Walker may end up in a similar bucket. His strengths are not going to show if he ends up somewhere where he needs to be the initiator. He’s not the capping achievement of a rebuild, the white whale to tell stories of for the rest of time. He’s the sail that carries the wind, not the other way around.

There’s so much to love about Jarace, but he is the definition of a “not for everyone” prospect. I have him as a top-five player in this class, beating out Brandon Miller as my top-ranked forward (though the two are vastly different). Minnesota Timberwolves fans over the past two or more years have experienced the joys of not just Kyle Anderson but Jarred Vanderbilt as well. While neither is a franchise player or even building blocks, they have indelible impacts whenever they enter the game. He takes that and dials it up to eleven, or better yet, twenty-five. He is not the centerpiece, but he lifts up everyone around him. He singlehandedly wrestles the margins into his team’s favor. He’ll throw the lob to end a dunk contest. The more you search for what to believe in, the more you miss what you have in front of you. Jarace Walker just makes life easier.