In case you missed it, Derrick Walker made his season debut for the Huskers in Orlando during the ESPN Events Invitational. I’m not sure how you could have considering how loud his play was, but he dropped double-doubles in each of his first two games.
Walker put up 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting, 12 rebounds and three assists in a loss to Memphis then followed it up with 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting, 13 rebounds and four assists in a blowout win against Florida State.
Nebraska has had a difficult time running offense against teams that assert relentless pressure, both in the full court and in the half court, and Walker’s absence has played a big part in that. Now that he’s back, it’s provided the Huskers with more ways to attack teams and deal with pressure with his ability to handle the ball and pass as a big man — two things that were on full display in Orlando.
“This team, I think, is a good cutting team and it’s a high-IQ team so this system could be a good one for this group,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “But I think to the defense of everybody, the pressure that we were seeing early on in the season, we handled it very well. And then when St John’s hit and Oklahoma hit, we didn’t handle it as well and a lot of that had to do with this guy. Do we win those games? I don’t know. Do we have a better chance? Absolutely. But that’s over. We can’t do anything about that, we can only move forward.
“So we really went back as a staff and talked about what can we do to help these guys out with this pressure that we’re seeing? We weren’t getting a lot accomplished with the back cuts without Derrick in the lineup. Now you saw when Derrick’s out there and he’s able to bring the ball on the floor and you’ve got a 7-footer coming out to have to defend him, that’s what opened up all those slips to the basket.”
Walker emerged as one of the more efficient scorers in the country last season, setting the single-season program record for field goal percentage. He developed into a terrific pick-and-roll finisher alongside Alonzo Verge Jr. and became a reliable post-up option capable of creating his own shot in the paint.
We saw plenty of that finishing ability in a variety of ways during his first two games.
In that reel you see Walker burying a smaller defender when Memphis switched the pick-and-roll and also finishing around the help defender on a short roll, avoiding the charge. He was all over the offensive glass and put himself in position for easy buckets by either sealing, rolling into space or muscling defenders out of the way. This is all stuff we saw last year.
However, what really popped, particularly in the second game, was Walker’s ability to both bring the ball up the floor to relieve pressure on the backcourt and create plays for himself and others off the bounce in the halfcourt. Hoiberg said they tweaked some things and incorporated those changes with Walker handling the ball more on a practice court in the hotel, and we saw those changes truly take hold against the Seminoles.
Walker abused Florida State’s 7-foot-4 sophomore center, and he did a good job avoiding help defenders when they dug in on his drives. He faced up and blew by a guard at the end of the reel. We also saw an example of Walker bringing the ball up the floor and then doing something productive with it rather than looking to give it up as soon as he got across halfcourt.
Walker said ball-handling wasn’t necessarily something he focused on during the offseason, but it developed naturally.
“It kind of just happened,” Walker said. “I don’t think we really practiced it much going into the game but just me being able to take the pressure off the guards whenever I can, it’s great being able to do that, and also being able to help us get into the offense when one of them is not able to bring the ball up. So it just makes us more versatile.”
A big part of Walker’s game that Nebraska wants to continue to take advantage of even more than we saw last year is his playmaking, particularly out of the hight post. He had some real turnover issues against Memphis, but I chalk that up mostly to first-game rust and needing to reestablish chemistry with his teammates.
Walker dished out seven assists in his first two games, most of them to cutters out of the high post or to players with driving lanes on the perimeter. He also found Keisei Tominaga for a 3 after an offensive rebound.
Walker’s presence made a huge difference in the way Nebraska’s offense operated as a whole. Four other players scored in double figures against Florida State — 13 for C.J. Wilcher, Sam Griesel and Tominaga plus 10 for Juwan Gary — and Walker either directly assisted on some of those buckets or helped create those opportunities.
“Juwan slashing, I thought he did a really good job of filling the lanes and cutting and not settling,” Hoiberg said. “I thought he settled a little bit in those first couple of games. But again, this guy makes a big difference in that. Juwan can get to the rim more when he had the attention that Derrick can draw. Sam knocking down a couple shots is huge for this team and talking to him about the importance of taking those shots to have the defense play him honest, because then Sam can go by his guy which you saw and then make plays.
“I thought our slashing and cutting was great. Derrick had some really good rolls, finishes, but Juwan as well. C.J. had a couple of nice slashes on the baseline, and anytime you can get to the rim that should loosen up things within your offense.”
I think Griesel might benefit from Walker’s return more than anyone else as it takes some ball-handling and playmaking responsibilities off his shoulders. He no longer has to handle the ball the entire time he’s out there in the face of constant pressure. Griesel dished out nine assists to go with his 13 points and also knocked down a couple of catch-and-shoot 3s.
“It’s amazing to get back out there just because I’m part of the reason why he came here and it just feels good to be back out there because we’re all in sync when we play,” Walker said. “I can just tell a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders. So I was just happy to be there for him and go to battle with him.”
A two-man game with Walker and Griesel with shooters and cutters around them is likely what Hoiberg envisioned when he assembled this roster and began putting together offensive game plans, and we saw a glimpse of that against Florida State. Offense won’t come so easily against most of the teams remaining on their schedule, but Walker’s presence at least gives the Huskers a fighting chance moving forward.
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.