BOULDER. In the not too distant future, we would all like to have the bank account of Colorado sophomore Jabari Walker. He will soon become an NBA millionaire. Guaranteed.
But Walker is not yet a money player.
“He is 19 years old. He’s still learning,” CU coach Tad Boyle said Thursday.
It’s hard to grow up to be able to put a basketball team on your back. Walker could leave CU after this season and enter the draft, reaping the financial benefits of being selected no later than the middle of the second round. It would be a smart move for his net worth, but a mistake in developing a shooter whose all-round skills are far from perfect.
Holes in Walker’s massive potential are the main reason the Buffs missed out on a signature win that could have been a bold line on a resume worthy of an NCAA Tournament invite. CU faltered in the closing minutes, losing 61–58 to the 16th seed USC Trojans.
To his credit, Walker led CU’s often inept offense with 13 points. But he only made three of his nine field goals.
With the outcome of the game hanging in the balance at the end of the second half, the Buffs put the ball in and trusted him. Walker winced. It’s not a sin. It was a learning moment, a chance for a talented young player to realize that his handle, as well as his finishing skills, were not NBA ready.
“Last year (Walker) was a power forward. He was doing open jump shots when our guys gave him jump shots. He did a great job with it,” Boyle said. “This year, his role is completely different. The ball is in his hands. We expect him to play for himself and for others. He’s capable, but he needs to learn.”
Despite only making six shots from the field in the first half, the Buffs were full of fisticuffs and vinegar as they bounced off the floor into the locker room, tying 25 with the Trojans at halftime.
“To be honest, I don’t know how we behaved in the game,” Boyle said. “This is a testament to the competitiveness and courage of our guys.”
However, on the first day of classes at Basketball 101, everyone will learn: You cannot win if you cannot score. Championship defense means nothing if your shots ring, clank, clang.
The CU offense fell asleep at the wheel until sophomore quarterback Nicke Clifford woke up his teammates and brought down the house with a thunderous dunk midway through the second half. It was a moment that screamed that those cheeky buffs might have what it takes to take down a ranked opponent and ignited a 10:0 streak that put CU ahead 47:43 with 8 minutes 13 seconds left.
“We have to use this moment to win,” Buffs senior Evan Batty said. “We didn’t do it, so it’s disappointing.”
At a crucial moment, the young Buffs took a place at the end of the class at the school of hard knocks. After Tristan da Silva’s three-pointer, CU took a 50-45 lead with 6:41 left to play, the Buffs couldn’t buy another bucket off the field until defenseman Quichon Barthélemy landed a pointless, unopposed blow to the final buzzer.
On the stretch, Walker made two layups, missed a free throw, and made the game-tying pass when his handle broke under pressure.
“It’s not because Jabari isn’t talented enough and isn’t trying to do the right thing,” said Boyle, who has developed six NBA draft picks in his 11 years at CU.
It could be a smart business move if Walker announces the draft as this season draws to a close for the Buffs. But the best basketball decision for Walker would have been to return to CU and invest in himself and his skills, rather than take NBA quick money and run.
Easier said than done, huh?