Breaking Down Jarace Walker's Defensive Versatility | The Friday Screener
Jarace Walker is one of the most unique players in the country, and his defensive versatility is a leading reason why.
The Houston Cougars are one of the best teams in college basketball, and Jarace Walker is a significant reason why. Houston is a team flush with experience, but if Walker can reach his potential, he could make them a title favorite. At IMG, Walker was a Swiss army knife on steroids. He defended every position, initiated the offense, and was a physically imposing monster. With Houston, Walker’s offensive role has been a bit more muted, but he is starting to tease us with more of his versatility. What has shown up from day one for the potential 2023 NBA Draft lottery pick, though, is Walker’s exceptional defensive versatility, awareness, and IQ.
Defensive versatility is one of those tropes that is frequently thrown around too cavalierly and often inaccurately. Just because a player is a good athlete or plays hard doesn’t mean they’re necessarily that versatile of a defender. Differentiating between spastic hustle and good defense can be really difficult, mainly because the viewer’s eyes are naturally drawn to energy and not a guy who is in the right position. It’s like watching an offensive line in football. Most of us have no clue what we’re supposed to be watching, but when they screw up, we certainly notice it.
With Walker’s defense, we get the rare, but brilliant, blend of energetic, disruptive defense with the sound positioning of an experienced vet. Walker is one of 10 players among true high major conferences who have played 50% of available minutes to have a Block Rate of at least 5.0 and a Steal Rate of at least 2.5. There isn’t anything on the defensive end of the floor that Walker can’t do, which at 6’8” and 220 pounds, is a truly special gift.
Arguably the most remarkable aspect of Walker’s defense at his size is his ability to switch and defend on the perimeter. At Houston, Walker hasn’t been asked to do as much of that as he did at IMG, but we’ve still gotten glimpses of his sublime footwork and agility.
Here, after covering for a teammate on the weak side, Walker closes out to the skip pass. The ball-handler smartly tries to attack the closeout, but Walker has other ideas. The common theme in this clip is Walker’s footwork and hip fluidity. As he closes out, Walker is forcing the ball-handler to the sideline. The ball-handler attacks middle, though, and Walker effortlessly flips his hips and cuts off the drive. This defense initiates a spin move by the ball-handler, which Walker again effortlessly pivots with. His fluid movements and light feet allow Walker to be in a tremendous position to heavily contest the off-balance shot.
This time, Walker is again matched up on an opposing wing who thinks he has the quickness to beat Walker off the dribble. The ball-handler again attacks Walker’s high foot, and we see those same fluid hips. This time, though, Walker shows off his stellar footwork as he perfectly slides with the ball-handler to cut off the drive. Since he is a mountain of a man, Walker absorbs the aggressive push-off, keeps his balance, and gets a solid contest on the tough pull-up jumper.
What makes Walker’s on-ball perimeter defense even scarier is that he has quick hands to pair with his quick feet. Here, the opposing PG yet again underestimates Walker’s mobility. When will these kids learn. The ball-handler attempts a rudimentary blow-by drive, which Walker’s elite footwork promptly cuts off. The ball-handler then tries to fake that he’s pulling the ball back out before trying the same move again. A slightly better sell job against a lesser defender may have resulted in a layup, but Walker isn’t fooled. Walker regains his balance, times his swipe perfectly, and forces the turnover.
Despite his on-ball intensity, Walker has mostly been used as a disruptive and reliable team defender for Houston. A role that will likely mirror more of what he’s asked to do in the NBA. This has resulted in him having to be precise with his rotations from the weak side and his positioning in defending the pick-and-roll.
As a weak side rim protector, there aren’t many silhouettes that are more intimidating, let alone effective. Here, Walker is matched up against the much taller Charles Bediako in the middle of the lane, while presumptive Top 10 pick Brandon Miller operates on the right side of the floor. Miller loses his defender with a nifty hesitation move and assumes he has a layup. Walker disagrees. Instead of being overeager, Walker times his rotation perfectly. This ensures that he doesn’t leave Bediako all alone for an easy dump-off and that Walker can swat the layup into the fifth row.
Here, Walker shows his brilliant processing speed and play recognition in what may be my favorite defensive clip of the season as he defends the weak side essentially on his own. Walker is operating as the low man, a role he will likely fill frequently in the NBA, as Alabama runs a middle pick-and-roll. Houston blitzes the ball-handler, which leaves Bediako a free roll. Since Walker is acutely aware of his defensive responsibilities, he is there to not just tag Bediako’s roll but impede it by getting rim side and putting a body on him. Mark Sears sees Walker’s positioning and knows that Miller is left alone in the corner. Walker reads Sears’s eyes perfectly, detaches from Bediako, and jumps the skip pass to spark the fast break.
Similar to having to be perfect as the low man and defending the weak side, Walker will be, and has been, tested frequently in the pick-and-roll. Walker doesn’t have traditional center size, but his combination of strength, frame, and mobility allows him to implement a variety of coverages.
Here, Virginia runs an empty corner pick-and-roll with the intent to create an open corner three or a drive to the middle of the floor. It’s a really difficult action to defend. As Armaan Franklin comes off the screen, Marcus Sasser goes over, which means Walker has to show to deny the drive. This decision allows Ben Vander Plas to relocate freely to the corner. Vander Plas isn’t a lights-out shooter, but you also don’t want to leave him completely alone. Franklin makes the correct read and a perfect pass as he swings it to Vander Plas in the corner. Walker, though, times his movements perfectly as he bolts to recover a split second before Franklin initiates his pass. Walker’s recognition, timing, and technique on the closeout allow him to at least get in the space of Vander Plas as he releases.
This time, Walker executes a brilliant defensive possession and covers an immense amount of ground. Virginia runs a quick pick-and-roll into a weave action into a side pick-and-roll. Given that he’s a menace, Walker stunts at the first pick-and-roll before recovering and blitzing the second pick-and-roll on the other side of the court. This pressure forces Reece Beekman to reset and allows Walker to recover back to his man in the paint. As he recovers to his man, Walker stays between his man and the ball, disallowing any entry pass. As the clock runs low, Beekman finds Franklin cutting. This could’ve easily ended as a layup, but Walker’s awareness allows him to detach from Kadin Shedrick, alter the shot, and force the shot clock violation.
While most of Walker’s pick-and-roll coverage introduces a bit of chaos, he’s also shown that he can play a version of a classic drop coverage. As Alabama runs the high pick-and-roll, Walker opens up his body and drops to the elbow to deter the drive but not pressure the ball-handler. Once Walker is confident that his teammate has recovered, he disengages and recovers to Bediako at the free-throw line. Since Sears picked up his dribble, he’s now frantically looking for a teammate to bail him out. Bediako tries to be that safety net, but Walker hasn’t turned off. Walker stays with Bediako and capitalizes on the lazy pass that he takes the other way for a layup.
Jarace Walker’s combination of size, strength, IQ, and mobility is rare not just for college basketball but for the NBA. Houston is a team that relies on experienced play and rarely rewards freshmen with significant minutes. The fact that Walker is not only playing as much as he is, but also is playing the role he is, shows how much this coaching staff thinks of him and trusts him. Defensively, there isn’t anything that Walker can’t do. He can be the point-of-attack defender. He can show a variety of looks in the pick-and-roll. He can defend the weak side by himself. Whatever is asked of him on defense, he can execute. Based on his defensive versatility alone, Jarace Walker is worthy of a Top 10 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft.