“He’s going to go down as one of my all-time favorites.”
Fred Hoiberg was speaking about Derrick Walker, the only player in the program who has been around for the coach’s entire tenure in Lincoln.
Walker arrived at Nebraska in 2019 after spending a couple of years at Tennessee, redshirting that first season, and now he’s back for a sixth year of college basketball. In fact, some of his teammates call him “Grandpa” (at the ripe old age of 24).
“I’ve been Grandpa for a couple years now,” Walker said. “Some of my teammates, their birthdays are 2003. I was born in ’97. It’s crazy. But yeah, I’m Grandpa.”
Walker has played a lot of college basketball, but it wasn’t until last season that he truly broke out as a difference-maker, averaging 9.5 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting 68.3% from the field and 72.6% from the free-throw line.
“He just he does everything right,” Hoiberg said. “First of all, how he plays on the court: he’s very unselfish, he’s well-rounded, his efficiency that he plays with — shooting 67% last year. He’s never a guy that complains one time over the course of the season, regardless of how things are going. He’s a positive influence in the locker room, and he’s done a good job organizing. Our guys have spent so much time together off the floor and Derrick is really one of the catalysts of that, of getting the guys together, which is so important for the chemistry of the group. Derrick’s a true pro.”
Hoiberg called Walker a “rock out there on the floor,” and the veteran forward couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be that rock one more time as Hoiberg looks to get the program on track.
“It meant a lot for me to come back just because I can feel the love that I get here, and I can tell that Coach genuinely cares about me,” Walker said. “He said I’m the rock of this program, and I feel like that too. So, for me to just leave all that behind, I feel like I’d be making the wrong decision. It’s my last year, I don’t want to pack up everything and go move and get to know new people in a new program. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. So just being here where I’m comfortable and can make an impact, that meant a lot to me.”
Walker played almost exclusively as the biggest guy on the floor for the Huskers, rarely sharing the court with another true big. However, Hoiberg landed Walker some help on the interior in his 2022 recruiting class in the form of Blaise Keita, one of the top junior college centers in the country. In addition to battling with the 6-foot-11, 240 pound Keita in workouts, Walker has also been working on expanding his game so he can play alongside his fellow big man.
“It’s been fun,” Walker said.“It felt like something that I needed to do. I love playing the five but I’m 6-8; sometimes I need a break playing against those 7-footers. Just having Blaise, [redshirt freshman] Oleg [Kojenets], and just having that extra length with Wilhelm [Breidenbach] as well, just having that extra length, I feel like it takes a lot of stress off of me just because we can have a couple bodies that can come in and do the same job that I can. So it’s been it’s been lovely having Blaise here.”
Keita’s arrival also served as a reunion of sorts for Walker and Keita, both of whom attended Sunrise Christian Academy in high school. Walker said he’s seen plenty of improvement from the younger center since their Sunrise days, but made it perfectly clear who’s still in charge.
“He’s gotten a lot better, but he’s still the same player,” Walker said. “I used to kick his butt then, I still kick his butt now.”
Keita may be the same player, but Walker is hoping to show something new in his final season in Lincoln. Hoiberg said he’s been playing some on the perimeter this summer, and he’s shown a good feel for playing in different spots.
“He was pretty much exclusively a five for us last year,” Hoiberg said. “Blaise has been an absolute force for us out there on the floor … I don’t think guys like going against him very much because he’s just going to go in there and fly around and he’s a great rebounder, so you always have to know where he is. And to be able to play bigger lineups, whether it’s Blaise-Derrick, Derrick-Wilhelm, Juwan [Gary] has got toughness and size where he can slide down and play some of that four spot. C.J. [Wilcher] obviously has some experience playing there as well.
“But I think we’ve got a versatile lineup this year and Derrick, the thing he worked on most in the spring was his outside shot. He really wanted to, one of the things with Derrick coming back, was working on his 3 and he’s comfortable out there shooting it right now. So just to see him slide around the floor — he’s already very versatile and well-rounded, but just to see him progress and take that next step in his development has been fun.”
Walker is 0-2 from 3 in 112 career games, and according to Synergy, he attempted just three jumpers inside the arc all season, all off the dribble and all off-target. However, one area to signify possible shooting potential is Walker’s free-throw percentage, which took a leap from 37.9% for his first three seasons to 72.6% this past year.
“I’m still putting in work, but it’s just taking time out the day outside of practice to just come in and get shots up, work on my form, work on my footwork, work on keeping it all in one motion,” Walker said. “Knowing when you shoot, what are you doing to mess up and how can you fix it and recognizing and just fixing things. Like Coach said, I’m comfortable now, and every now and then he’ll come help me and tweak it a little bit just to keep me in form. But just putting up a lot of shots, just really focusing and paying attention to what I’m doing and not just putting up the ball. So just a couple of days a week, a few days a week, just come in, extra time and just shoot.”
Whether Walker develops into a true stretch threat to play alongside Keita or he replicates his role and production from last season in a rotation with Keita at the five, the veteran’s return was huge for the Huskers, both on and off the court.
Walker is the Huskers’ leader, their rock… and their grandpa.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.