How college life flies fast for Jarace Walker: Is the NBA calling in June?

Frank Bodani
York Daily Record

ANNAPOLIS, Md. − The game was barely a minute old. The most anticipated rookie on the court − one of the most intriguing in the entire nation − was alone in the corner. The ball found him. Jarace Walker caught it clean and didn't hesitate.

So much swirled around him on that November evening. He was playing on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy on Veteran's Day ... in just his second college game ... for the soon-to-be No. 1 team in the country. He was playing in front of 50 and more friends and family members, an hour from where he grew up in New Freedom, Pa.

Everyone watching, critiquing, expecting − including his coach, one of the winningest in NCAA history.

Walker caught that quick pass against St. Joseph's University. He extended those extra-long arms on his 6-foot-8 frame and released smooth and easy.

His first shot of his second game of a basketball life with the Houston Cougars that may only last one frantic fall, winter and spring.

Houston's Jarace Walker (25) reacts after a teammate scores early in the first half against St. Joseph's during the Veterans Classic at Navy's Alumni Hall on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, in Annapolis, Md.

So much to absorb, learn and grow for maybe the most talented basketball player ever from York County.

He shot from deep in the corner, and the ball swished through the net.

He turned and jogged down the court on defense at the beginning of his welcome to big-time college basketball.

So much, they say, yet to see ...

From York County to the IMG Academy

Houston's Jarace Walker (25) pressures St. Joseph's 	Kacper Klaczek (0) into passing the ball during the Veterans Classic at Navy's Alumni Hall on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, in Annapolis, Md.

Walker wasn't the only Division I athlete in his family growing up a few miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

One older sister played volleyball at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County; another is playing her senior basketball season for St. Joe's in Philadelphia.

Jarace was the youngest, the largest, and always the one with the most tantalizing and yet curious future in sports: How good could he possibly become? He pushed over 6-feet and was dunking in games − as a seventh-grader.

His home school, Susquehannock, had a phenom ready to emerge − for a team that hadn't played for a boys' basketball district title in nearly 40 years. Meanwhile, most every high-profile private basketball school in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area wanted him to transfer.

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But the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida offered more. The national prep school power, usually a one- or two-year landing spot for elite football and basketball players, wanted him for all four years.

His parents hesitated, unsure of allowing their soon-to-be high school freshman to leave home. Jarace pushed for it. He wanted the focus and upscale training and facilities usually reserved for Division I universities. He won over his mom and dad, headed to Florida and immediately helped IMG win a national title. He grew in body and skills each year.

Now, at Houston, he's learning under legendary coach Kelvin Sampson, on one of the top teams in the nation.

Certainly, Walker owned the accolades when he arrived there last summer. He was a McDonald’s All-American, a 5-star recruit and considered the nation's No. 1 power forward prospect. He also possessed the work ethic, experience and pedigree. He considers an NBA player his mentor (Washington Wizards' Will Barton) and continues to work through grueling, training sessions with his longtime AAU coach whenever he's back home.

Walker could be an NBA Lottery Pick in June

Houston basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson talks with freshman Jarace Walker during a pause in play against St. Joseph's at Navy's Alumni Hall on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, in Annapolis, Md.

Many have targeted Walker as a potential NBA lottery pick in June − as one of the top selections in the draft, despite playing just one year in college.

And, sure enough, he's rapidly proving himself at Houston, which has roared through its past six seasons (159-31 combined record). The Cougars reached the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament two years ago and the Elite Eight last year. They're a national title contender again.

Walker was an immediate starter on this team. Big stuff for the polite, humble kid who takes time to open up to his surroundings. He's never been one to wow with gaudy statistics and numbers. Rather, coaches are won over by his versatility and varying skills for someone so powerfully built at his age.

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In his first college game he played a bit tight and nervous on offense − and yet still found a way to dominate with a dozen rebounds.

In that second outing in Annapolis, he rather effortlessly led everyone with 23 points on a sprinkling of 3-pointers, dunks and soft-touch, floating shots in the lane.

Afterward, Sampson praised Walker for his pride in quickly working to bounce back from his poor-shooting opening − one more glimpse of how good he can become.

"He had eight rebounds but how about 18?" Sampson told reporters. "Because he's capable."

Sampson has said, repeatedly, how he believes Walker may be his most coachable freshman in nearly 40 years.

"He works every day like he’s trying to make the team. That's not normal for a freshman. A lot of those guys get empowered, that somebody owes them something," Sampson said in a phone interview at the season's beginning.

"I think the best compliment I can pay Jarace right now is that when I walk on that court every day for practice ... I know exactly what I'm going to get out of Jarace that day, that he's going to work his butt off.

"He's like a big ol' sponge. He wants to learn."

Before rejoining his team to hop on a plane back to Houston, freshman forward Jarace Walker takes time to sign an autograph for a young fan following a game at Navy's Alumni Hall on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, in Annapolis, Md.

The biggest learning points are refining his outside shot and better utilizing his superior physical size and strength around the basket. The physicality focus and buy-in has been a gradual process. Though 6-8 and 240 pounds, he's still skilled enough to handle the ball and shoot outside and is often times more apt to pass to a teammate than drive to the basket.

Progress is coming. There's just so much there to work with, those close to him say.

"He’s not hesitating on his jump shot anymore," said his longtime AAU coach and trainer, Donnell "Mookie" Dobbins. "Before he would shoot shots because he was open. Now he shoots shots because he knows he’s going to make them."

And yet, “he has the most upside around the rim," Dobbins said. "He doesn’t realize yet how big and physical and strong he is, but he’s starting to grasp it. ... I think you’ll see his instincts kick in a lot more the second half of the year. Come March he should be peaking."

Walker put it like this: "In high school I'd have put-back dunks, but they're really emphasizing crashing the glass, doing the dirty work (now). I guess that's the biggest adjustment (to college), emphasizing a whole different part of my game."

He's certainly owned breakthrough moments, like leading his 16-1 Cougars to a huge road victory at No. 2 Virginia in December. He produced a team-best 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists − most of his scoring coming in the tight second half, in an enemy arena packed with more than 14,000 fans.

He's learning how his versatility − owning the size to guard big post players and the quickness to handle smaller guards − helps Houston own the best defense in the nation. He's become more forceful on offense, evidenced by back-to-back 20 point-plus efforts.

Older teammate and floor leader Jamal Shead told PaperCity Magazine this about Walker's gradually growing assertiveness: “It opens up the court. When (Walker) gets comfortable with himself, it opens up so much for everybody else.”

Leading Houston into March Madness

Houston may not play another ranked team in the regular season as it rolls toward its best chance yet to reach the national title game for the first time since back-to-back losses there four decades ago − teams led by future NBA hall of famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Walker, at just 19 years old, is being counted on to help get them back there − in what may be his only chance. If the prognosticators are correct, he may leave college as a Top 10 draft pick in five months.

His potential still overshadows anything he's doing on the court now. One scout described him as "a Swiss army knife and one of the most versatile players projected for the 2023 draft." 

After scoring just two points in a last-minute survival against Central Florida, Walker had a motivational chat with Olajuwon. He followed that with the best two games of his first and maybe only college season. He's second on Cougars in scoring, rebounding and is impressing most with his defense and nearly 40 percent shooting from 3-point range.

"He’s up and down, but he’s starting to level off. His best days are way ahead of him,” Sampson told NBA Draft Digest. “He looks like Karl Malone a bit with his body. He’s just not as aggressive, but we’re on it. It’s coming.”

"His ceiling is through the roof ... he's nowhere near where he will be," said Houston assistant coach Quannas White. "The more he keeps working and loves the game − he loves to work on his game, day-in and day-out.

"He's got nothing to do but continue to get better."

Frank Bodani covers sports and outdoors stories for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.