Jabari Walker: The Value of Utility
Colorado sophomore Jabari Walker's versatile skillset could translate into him being one of the best utility players and steals of the 2022 NBA Draft.
Boulder, Colorado is your prototypical college town. A place that has become known for being a hub of yuppie and weed culture, where basketball is an afterthought to most. You’re likely to find someone on the streets of Boulder who can explain why the new strain of Golden Goat they have is ‘straight fire bro’ or where the latest dorm party will be held. In a state that’s focused primarily on the Denver Broncos, marijuana, and shredding the slopes, not much attention is paid to the job Tad Boyle has done with the Colorado Buffaloes men’s basketball program over the past decade.
Under Boyle’s leadership since 2010, the Buffs have had nine 20-plus win seasons and appeared in the NCAA Tournament five times while becoming more of a factory for future NBA talent. They’ve had six players selected in the NBA Draft during this span, with names like Spencer Dinwiddie, Alec Burks, Derrick White, and Andre Roberson all finding success as pros to varying degrees.
Sophomore Jabari Walker has the chance to be the next former Buff drafted into the league and, in my opinion, could end be up being the best pro the program has produced since Dinwiddie. The son of 10-year NBA veteran Samaki Walker, Jabari showcased some major leaps in his skillset in an expanded role for the Buffs this season. Earning First-team All-Pac-12 honors while averaging a near-double-double, Walker’s early signs of growth as a player should be a promising sign for NBA evaluators.
That’s not to say Walker doesn’t have his flaws as a prospect. As with most young players, he’s got plenty of areas of his game that need more refinement. His main weakness currently to me is his lack of ability as a shot creator and ball handler. As you’ll see in the clips below, Walker just doesn’t have any real shiftiness when trying to create off of the bounce and also has choppy footwork. I’m not sure he’s a player that’s ever going to have a ton of success at the next level if he’s asked to be a go-to, isolation scorer, or primary initiator on the offensive end of the floor.
However, that’s not really the role I envision Walker playing or thriving in as a pro. In 2003, the Discovery Channel launched a show called Dirty Jobs that was hosted by Mike Rowe. The series highlighted workers in some of America’s more difficult and undesirable jobs while Rowe joins them in doing their routine tasks on a typical workday. It showed the importance of some of the country’s unsung heroes and why the specific jobs they do are so pivotal in multiple aspects of the success of our society.
Now you’re probably asking yourself, what in the hell does that have to do with basketball or Jabari Walker? Well, stick with me. I believe Walker might be one of those NBA players who can have a ton of success doing the so-called dirty work for a team. He excels at doing things on the hardwood that may not make him a superstar in this league but will allow him to be an invaluable piece to a team’s rotation. Walker’s overall potential as a defender, his current defensive versatility, and his immense ability as a rebounder are all skills that should translate at the next level. He’s sort of the quintessential modern-day utility player, in my opinion.
Starting with what Walker does as a rebounder, this dude cleans the glass with a purpose, and I love that. He ranked first in the Pac-12 this season in total rebounds (310), defensive rebounds (242), rebounds per game (9.4), and total rebound percentage (19.5%). Walker’s rebounding fundamentals are sound, he boxes out well and high points the ball, but he’s also just got a feel for the art of rebounding too.
He does a good job of reading how the ball is going to come off of the rim on missed shot attempts. Plus, Walker’s got a great catch radius and great hands that help him secure rebounds efficiently from all over the floor. I imagine NBA decision-makers will fall in love with his ability to create second-shot opportunities for his team and manufacture his own points on the offensive glass.
The fact that Walker doesn’t need the ball to create his own offense is another reason why I see him fitting as such a perfect role player in the NBA. Whether it’s with his offensive rebounding or his ability to run the floor like a gazelle and score in transition, Walker finds ways to create scoring chances, often without the ball. For a team looking to play at a high tempo, he would fit right in and be a playmaker’s dream on fast breaks.
Shifting gears over to evaluating Walker’s defensive capabilities currently, this is the part of his skill set that probably excites me most in terms of his pro outlook. Now I’m not going to name names or single anyone out, but a few of my cohorts here at No Ceilings find Walker to be stiff athletically and believe people are overstating his defensive potential.
Frankly, I couldn’t disagree more with that sentiment. I’m not here to tell you that Walker is perfect as a defender; there are times when he gets lost on switches or just gives unacceptable effort on the ball for someone of his defensive caliber. I see the flaws, but I also see a prospect who won’t be 20-years-old until July and already has flashed the potential to be a dynamic defensive weapon at the NBA level.
Listed at 6’9”, 215-pounds, sporting a 7’0” wingspan, and having plus athleticism, the physical tools Walker has as a defender are very apparent. He also ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in Defensive Rating (93.8) and sixth in Defensive Win Shares (2.0) this year, but the evidence on tape is even more tantalizing. You’ll see in the video below—whether it’s against Kennedy Chandler, Harrison Ingram, Patrick Baldwin Jr, or Christian Koloko, Walker stifles all of them at some point or another. I think as an on-ball defender, he’s got the potential switchability to guard all five positions on the floor, and he also has immense range defensively. He possesses enough lateral quickness and the length to recover to engulf smaller guards or wings if they beat him initially off of the dribble.
Walker brings value away from the ball defensively as well, given what he can do as a help defender. He routinely will secure blocks coming over to help his teammate on a busted rotation from the weak side or will use his hands to get into the way of passing lanes to create steals. The way he can sort of decimate an opposing team’s pick-and-roll attack is beautiful to watch.
As a longtime Denver Nuggets fan, with the injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. aside, watching the team this season rely heavily on players like Austin Rivers and Davon Reed to carry much of the top defensive priorities for the squad only reiterated to me why having bigger wings on your roster who can guard multiple positions is so important nowadays. Having someone like Walker on the roster this year for a team like the Nuggets would've been massive in a variety of ways. The “glue guys” might not get the same praise or attention as the star players, but I’d argue they’re a crucial part of any NBA franchise’s success in contending for championships.
Outside of his rebounding and defensive versatility, though, Walker has some intriguing upside to me as a secondary scorer and playmaker. In terms of his scoring, Walker has good touch and physicality as a post scorer who can be a mismatch on the block for smaller forwards. The emergence of his perimeter shooting also is a positive sign. In a more prominent, featured role for Tad Boyle’s offense, and on a much larger sample size than his freshman season, Walker converted on 36-of-104 (34.6%) of his three-point shot attempts as a sophomore.
I buy into him being a competent catch-and-shoot threat from beyond the arc, who can at the very least extend defenses and force them to be honest on their rotations. I don’t think you’re getting some elite shot-maker in Walker. However, for whatever team selects him in June, the fact his scoring repertoire is seemingly diversifying already should be a big confidence boost on what else he could add to his game as a scorer with NBA coaching.
You might’ve heard the term connector pop up more frequently lately in the realm of basketball analysis; well, Walker is a prospect I can see blossoming into that type of offensive role at the next level.
Again, I don’t view him as ever being some main creator for a pro offense or expect him to be initiating pick-and-rolls, but he might flourish as a complementary playmaker. Walker’s good at swinging the ball cross-court to find open shooters along the perimeter, but he’s also adept at making reads out of the post and finding open cutters as well.
I could see a career trajectory for Walker becoming a Jerami Grant or Herb Jones-type player in the NBA being very plausible. He’s not one of those prospects that has a specific skill that is super-elite, but Walker is good at a lot of different things rather and creates many positive plays on the hardwood. He’s a pretty definitive top 40 player in this 2022 NBA Draft class on my board.
He’ll do the unglamorous work for a rotation with his rebounding and defense while not needing to take any shots away from a team’s top-scoring options offensively. Add in the scoring and playmaking upside he has, and Walker just checks so many boxes for me as an evaluator that I’d be ecstatic to have a player with that two-way potential on my roster, especially if I can get him in the early portion of the second round. Versatility and size are a premium in today’s NBA, and Jabari Walker is an interesting blend of both.