Jarace Walker Is Made Of Lions
A versatile, skilled, two-way, physical freak; Jarace Walker was tailor made for modern NBA basketball. The NBA Draft Dude breaks down the ferocity in which the future Cougar forward attacks the game.
For most of my twenties, I worked in music and fashion as a designer/creative director. One of the cooler parts of that job was getting to tour around the world. In 2010, I hopped on a fancy tour bus and embarked on the Bamboozle Roadshow: a two-month touring festival made up of mostly pop, emo, and punk bands. Also, Hanson of Mmmbop fame. It was the craziest tour of my life, a total shit show, possibly a figment of my imagination, and quite frankly deserves a Fyre Festival type documentary. Anyway, the reason I am bringing any of this up is because Third Eye Blind was one of the headliners on the tour, which totally rocked. Their self-titled album is one of my all-time favorites; all bangers, no skips. I would watch them play almost every night, and every night their front-man Stephan Jenkins, who can best be described as eccentric, would do the front-man thing where he walks around the stage introducing his band members to the crowd. Every night when he got to his drummer, he would always say: “give it up to Brad Hargreaves on drums, he is made of lions.” This was simultaneously the coolest and most confusing description of someone I had ever heard, and I like many, had no idea what it meant. Until now, because Jarace Walker is made of lions.
For the uninitiated, Jarace Walker is a five-star recruit headed to Houston after spending his high school career at IMG Academy. At 6’8” and 235 pounds with a reported 7’2” wingspan, Walker is a physical marvel that fits the profile of what every modern NBA team is looking for now. If Masai Ujiri was building an NBA prospect in a lab, he’d look a lot like Jarace Walker.
It’s hard for me to not be fascinated with Walker early on in this process. As soon as you turn on the tape, Walker immediately pops off the screen, and it’s not just because of his physical profile. Walker plays with an infectious energy. The guy is seemingly everywhere, doing everything on the floor. I recently turned on IMG’s game against La Lumiere from this past season to watch JJ Starling, but Walker was so impactful that it was hard to focus on anything or anybody else. You never have to ask yourself the question, “Is Jarace Walker on the floor right now?” He always makes you feel his presence on the court.
At first glance, you look at Walker’s frame and how physically imposing he is on the court, and you’d hypothesize that he’s a bruiser, but what makes Jarace unique is that he manages to blend rim-roaring power with smooth finesse.
Walker’s first step burst is a stand-out skill out on the perimeter. Jarace will face you up, hit you with a jab step, blow by you, get downhill, and then tear down the rim with authority. With a spaced floor, it’s near impossible to keep him from getting to his spots.
Jarace balances out those power finishes with polish and patience, displaying advanced footwork to create separation and finish with soft touch. The skill level is impressive. Walker has shown the smooth Euros, the pivots, the step-throughs; the bag runs deep.
Walker’s game is versatility incarnate, blurring any positional lines you may try to box him in to. If your team has questions, Walker provides answers. Walker is bound to draw comps to Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes for his ability to serve as a swiss army knife, guarding damn near every position defensively while also initiating and making plays for himself and his teammates on the other end. Walker isn’t the same level of distributor as Barnes, who you can comfortably rely on to run offense full time as a jumbo initiator, but he has a natural feel as a playmaker that should allow him to serve as a hub at least part-time.
As soon as a shot goes up and Walker accrues the rebound, he’s a threat to make a play. Jarace loves to grab and go, pushing the pace, giving himself the option to go coast to coast and finish the play himself or leverage his scoring to find his teammates filling the wings.
Walker always has his eyes up. At least once a game, he’ll swallow a rebound and throw a perfect hit ahead full-court dime, hitting teammates in stride for easy buckets. If you’re willing to bust your ass and run the floor, Jarace is going to reward you for it.
In the halfcourt, Walker is comfortable operating as a hub on the block, the elbow, or the wing. His height allows him to survey the floor and hit shooters and cutters, working themselves open off the ball while also making plays with the rock in his hand. Walker has also displayed a comfortability making live dribble improvisational reads when he gets downhill into the teeth of the defense. The future Cougar has a nuanced understanding of angles and timing, passing his teammates open, and flinging the ball to the spot his teammates will end up at rather than the spot they’re currently occupying.
Walker had a ton of freedom and trust at IMG. He was allowed to take chances and experiment with high-level reads in tight spaces. Sometimes the results would be brilliant; other times, it would result in a needless turnover. Walker will need to tighten up some of his decision-making at the next level, but still, I love that he was willing to explore the parameters of his game.
Walker’s passing wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he wasn’t also a threat to score the rock himself. Walker was usually the biggest and strongest guy on the floor and would often play as a big man, serving as a play finisher in the dunker spot and cleaning up the glass for any misses near the rim, but it’s his ability to create offense from the wing that makes Jarace so appealing as a long term prospect.
The Cougar freshman may physically look like the next Isaiah Stewart, but he plays a lot like the next Patrick Williams. Walker has the ball on a string and has some nasty shiftiness to his game that makes it hard to stay in front of him. He’ll bust out a wicked combo move, get you leaning, and then use his brute strength to dip his shoulder and finish through contact at the rim, but Walker has also shown flashes of a developing pull-up game from the midrange.
Walker’s ability to work in the in-between and connect on floaters or even pull up and shoot makes his dribble penetration less predictable. The dribble jumper is a work in progress, but often Walker will catch the ball in the mid-post. If he feels a smaller defender on his hip, he’ll just turn and pull, dropping in feathery smooth fadeaways. The regularity and confidence that Walker has to go to this part of his game, along with the positive results, makes me comfortable in projecting that his shooting off the bounce will improve with time. And there have been flashes! What’s lacking is the consistency in his makes and the volume in which he takes these shots.
Walker is not going to be labeled a marksman during the draft cycle, and his shooting will almost assuredly be labeled a weakness by most analysts. There are reasons for that, but I’d call it more of an improvement area than an area of weakness. Walker’s form needs some cleaning up, and scouts will want to see if he is willing to shoot it at higher volume, but the shot is far from broken. Walker’s issue mainly comes down to his backwards lean. Most shooters want to stay balanced and go up and down or even have their momentum take them forward a touch; Walker’s lean causes him to fade slightly, even when he’s shooting a jumper that doesn’t call for it. That lean may even be one of the reasons why he’s so comfortable taking and knocking down fadeaways. If Walker can eliminate that lean from his shot when it doesn’t call for it, it should help him extend his range and become a more consistent long-range shooter.
With high-volume guards in the fold, the Cougars won’t need to rely on Walker to get a ton of long-range shots himself, and he’s capable enough as is in that he can make a team pay if they sag off of him too much, but NBA teams will surely be watching his shooting closely during his freshman campaign.
Walker’s offense is intriguing because of how seamlessly he’ll fit into any system and just about any role, but what he brings to the defense in combination with the offense is what makes him a potential top 5 pick in my eyes coming into the 2023 NBA Draft cycle.
The NBA is dominated by big, strong, versatile, switchable, two-way wings that can play on the ball and make plays off it, and that archetype is what every NBA team is looking for now. Any team thinking long-term wants to develop guys that you know can’t be played off the floor in the playoffs. That’s the type of player that Jarace Walker projects to become.
Walker was built to line up against lengthy NBA scoring machines, but he may legitimately be able to guard all five positions. IMG Academy’s schedule gave Walker the opportunity to consistently line up against the top high school recruits in the country, and he time and again would clamp them up. Nick Smith on an island? Clamps. Mark Mitchell iso from the wing? Clamps. Kel’El Ware on the block? Clamps. Jarace is big and physical enough to bang with bigs and light enough on his feet to switch his hips and guard the perimeter.
A scheme versatile defensive terminator that can play any type of coverage; Jarace can serve as a small-ball five in drop, playing cat and mouse with the guard and recovering back to the big in time to protect the rim. He can come up and meet you at the level or blitz screens, causing havoc with his length. If you want to switch everything, you can do it. Walker allows you to not have to cater a defensive system to him because he has the skill set to make any system work.
Off the ball, Jarace Walker is a weak-side rim protecting, defensive event creating, winning playmaking monster. Walker’s timing, contesting, and cleaning up shots at the rim resulted in some of the most aggressive shot blocks you’ll find. Next season Walker is going to enter into a Cougars system that wants to force ball handlers to their weak hand and load up on the help side, cutting the court in half, relying on the MIG (Most Important Guy/low man) to clean up any breakdowns. Walker is going to excel in this role for Coach Sampson.
A ball hawk in the passing lanes, Walker consistently turns defense into offense. His anticipation, length, and standstill burst allow him to seek out limp passes like a hawk surveying its prey from the sky. If you’re careless with a pass, you may be looking up the court watching a pick-six.
The goal of Houston’s defense isn’t to generate a ton of steals. There won’t be a ton of aggressive gambling. The Coogs want to instead force opponents into tough shots. This isn’t going to be an LSU situation where some of the numbers may be a little exaggerated based on scheme. And still, I’d wager that Jarace Walker is going to be a stock monster. When you play with the kind of force Jarace does, those counting stats are going to come by accident.
That’s Jarace Walker in a nutshell. The kid plays balls to the wall. He knows no other way. Evaluating players is always an inexact science with a ton of variables (more on that later this year), and it’s especially true before the college season, but I’m willing to bet that Jarace Walker is a dude. Yes, he’s skilled, but he also gives a shit. Buy in now while it’s early. He’s not perfect; there are things that he needs to clean up during his freshman campaign. I’d love to see him finish with his left hand more often. I want to see an improved jumper without having to use a Fat Joe song reference to describe it. But even with those areas for improvements in mind, he just brings so much to the table, at a position that every team covets. It’s so fun to use your imagination to project forward how Jarace is going to fit into an NBA offense. How he could be used as a DHO fulcrum and short roll operator, attacking and making reads in space. Initiating offense in the halfcourt and pushing the pace in transition. Defending one through five, switching seamlessly between every position on the floor. I’m looking forward to seeing if Walker can develop a similar chemistry with Marcus Sasser as he had with Keyonte George. The thing I’m looking forward to most is the passion and ferocity in which he plays because Jarace Walker is made of lions.
He’s gonna be good. He’d be perfect for a team starved for wing size and versatility like the Pacers.
Walker feels under-appreciated so far in the NBA draft circles.. he seems far more viable in today’s league than someone like Ware, or perhaps even Nick Smith. College season will inform a great deal, of course, but I think he’s got an interesting “sleeper” case for the Top 5-7 of this deep draft.