Derrick Walker has waited 21 months to make his Nebraska debut. Late on Monday afternoon, the Tennessee transfer learned he’d have to wait at least a few more days as Nebraska’s trip to Purdue was postponed.
Walker is now set to make his debut at home against Indiana on Sunday, assuming that game happens as scheduled.
After playing a limited role off the bench for two years at Tennessee, Walker entered the transfer portal and landed at Nebraska. He sat out all last season alongside Dalano Banton and Shamiel Stevenson, then shortly before their first game he learned that he would have to sit for half the season for an infraction he committed as a Volunteer.
“It hurt,” Walker said. “It hurt a lot. I felt my heart dropping. But I’m a grown man. I know that I put myself in that situation and after about 20 minutes of me dwelling on it, all I could do is get back in the gym, cheer my teammates on and move forward like it was a normal day.”
Through appeal, Nebraska got the suspension cut from 14 to 11 games, and the loss to Michigan State was game No. 11. Walker is now eligible to play for the Huskers after nearly two years on the sidelines.
“Here is where I learned, I don’t know, just about myself and I got in the gym more,” Walker said. “I knew that I had to wait. There was nothing that I could do personally about it. So in between the time of me sitting out, I’ve just been in the gym, been focusing on my teammates, working out and just doing what I can to be a leader.”
For a team mired in a four-game losing streak — and a 21-game conference losing streak dating back nearly a full calendar year — Walker’s addition to the lineup could be a big boost in a variety of ways, regardless of how much he contributes in the box score early on.
“Derrick’s a very popular player on this team,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He did a phenomenal job in the year-and-a-half since he’s been here and [during] his sit-out of continuing to lead through that. Being on the sidelines sometimes you see it a little bit more clearly what’s going on out there on the floor and how you can come in and help fix it and correct some things.
“He gives us a really good finisher around the basket. He gives us experience, playing in the SEC for a couple years for a great coach in Rick Barnes. So he’ll absolutely help us, but you can’t expect Derrick, sitting out as long as he has, to come in and right away be a 20-point-per-game guy. He’s going to help us in a lot of areas but we have to get Derrick time to get in shape and get his timing where we need it to be.”
Hoiberg said everyone in the program, from the coaches to the players to the support staff, is excited for Walker because he’s done things th right way the entire time he’s been in Lincoln. Hoiberg called him an easy guy to root for.
Rooting for his teammates is all he’s been able to do for the last 43 games, and now he’ll be able to provide the same kind of energy he’s tried to bring from the sidelines in a more direct fashion.
“For this team, I give a voice, a physical presence in the post,” Walker said. “I have experience, so when I say something these guys are able to listen and actually trust and believe in me. I’m going to play hard; these guys know I’m going to play hard, I’m going to make the right read. They know I want to get them the ball, they know that I want them to score and they know that I want us as a team to win.”
Walker said a coach once gave him a sage bit of advice: keep it simple, stupid. It hit a chord with him and he’s played by that mantra ever since. For a team struggling to do the little things well, he’ll be a welcome addition.
“My philosophy is literally just keep it simple,” Walker said. “You see someone wide open, give them the ball. If you have a layup, take the layup. If you have a shot, take the shot. It’s only when you start to overcomplicate things in this game when you start to look bad and make your team look bad. For me, I just want to go out there and just keep it simple, do my job, play my role.”
Walker scored a total of 91 points in his 64 career games as a Volunteer — 14 per game. As Hoiberg said, they’re not going to count on him to be a primary scorer. That being said, at Tennessee he did convert 29 of his 43 attempts at the rim (67.4%), and that’s an area where the Huskers have been struggling.
“The thing Derrick will demand as he rolls into the paint is he’ll demand a ton of attention with teams having to suck in there because of his ability to finish at the rim,” Hoiberg said. “That will hopefully open up some things on the perimeter. We have not finished, obviously, very well at the rim, really with all of our players, but particularly with Yvan [Ouedraogo]. He’s gotten a lot better over the last few games but I think teams will have to suck in there a little bit more obviously depending on their pick-and-roll coverage.”
Through four conference games, Nebraska has allowed opponents to shoot nearly 61% on 2-point shots and score 31.5 points per game in the paint. With freshman center Eduardo Andre still getting caught up after his 21-day COVID-19 layoff (14 total minutes in Big Ten play), Hoiberg hasn’t really had another option to go to in the post when Ouedraogo struggled or got caught up in foul trouble.
“Derrick gives us another big, physical body that hopefully will help in that area … Obviously we’ve had different double-team schemes,” Hoiberg said. “Our rotations at times have been really good and then at times we’ve had lapses in our rotations. We have to be more consistent with that. Those are drills that we do daily because of teams’ ability to score on us right now inside. We’ve got to be better, we’ve got to make it more difficult and then we have to secure the ball and rebound.”
At 6-foot-8 and 233 pounds, Walker isn’t necessarily a giant compared to some of the other bigs in the Big Ten (including the one-two punch of 6-foot-10, 265-pound junior Trevion Williams and 7-foot-4, 285-pound freshman Zach Edey he was supposed to play in his first game). Even so, he said he’s looking forward to the challenge of playing in a conference that features some of the best big men in the country.
“I just have to be ready for the challenge,” Walker said. “Every night you’re going to see a big dude in the Big Ten. It’s nothing that you can be scared of, you just have to go out there and attack it fist-first, and that’s just what I plan to do … I’m not really worried about the opponent as much as I’m worried about myself. It’s about what we can do as a team, not what the other team can do. So as long as I just stick to my rules, play my game and not try and do too much, I’ll be just fine.”
Hoiberg said he has an idea of how many minutes they might be able to get out of Walker in his first couple of games, but the junior himself will be the one who determines how much he plays. Game shape is different than practice shape, and Walker will have to find out how close to game shape he really is by getting out there and seeing how his body reacts.
“We’re going to monitor it closely and see how he’s doing,” Hoiberg said. “A lot of it will be on how he’s feeling out there, and if he feels great we may be able to extend the minutes that we have planned out for him. If he’s getting winded right away, we may have to get him in and out. So we’ll see; a lot of it’s going to be by feel.”
Walker said he’s not expecting to play heavy minutes; all he wants to do is give his team a boost for however long he’s out there and do what he can to help his team win.
After 21 long months (and now an extra few days), he’ll finally get a chance to do that in a Nebraska jersey.
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.