Remember when Derrick Walker got his first on-court action in January after serving a suspension and we all collectively asked, “What could Husker Hoops have done with THIS guy available for ALL the games?”
This season, we will find out.
Walker, the 6-foot-9, 232-pounder from Kansas City, enters his fifth college season – his third with Fred Hoiberg in Lincoln – in a position to lead the most talented Nebrasketball roster this century. In his two years at Tennessee, he was a part of an SEC championship team and a Sweet 16 run, so he knows what success looks like.
“I have a little experience, I know what it takes,” Walker said when meeting with the Nebraska media in late July. “I know how to do the little things, the X’s and O’s, so it’s just always doing the right thing and making sure everyone is coming together.”
Having been on the floor during Nebraska’s 2020-21 season, he also knows how the other half lives. The Huskers finished 7-20 overall, and 3-16 in Big Ten play. An NCAA suspension cost him the season’s first 11 contests.
How did Derrick Walker’s availability translate to improvement on the court? None of Nebraska’s three conference victories came without Walker in the lineup. A starter in all 16 games he was eligible to play, he averaged 5.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game, adding 13 blocks and 13 steals as well.
Walker started fast with 10 points, 3 boards, and 2 steals in a loss to Indiana in his debut as a Husker. It was his first in-game action in 658 days. Prior to that, he played three minutes for Tennessee in an NCAA Tournament second round overtime win over the Iowa Hawkeyes on March 24, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio. (Yes, that’s right – Derrick Walker played in a game in which his team knocked Iowa out of The Dance. KING.)
After finally getting to play on January 10th against the Hoosiers, Walker then had to wait another 27 days for his second game with NU as the program dealt with a Covid-19 outbreak.
After the Covid pause, Nebrasketball began a Big Ten death march, playing seven games in 12 days. Five were on the road, while the two in Lincoln were against top-25 teams. Walker held his own, though. In the near-upset of then 6th-ranked Illinois, he led the defense against All-American Kofi Cockburn in the post, fouling out but not before contributing then-career-highs of 8 rebounds and 3 assists.
The following game – on one days’ rest of course – was the road win over Penn State. Walker scored 8 points on 4-of-6 shooting and nabbed four rebounds. In back-to-back wins over Minnesota & Rutgers, he set career-highs in points and made field goals each time out: 12 points on 6-for-10 shooting against the Gophers, then 14 points on a 7-of-11 performance versus the Scarlet Knights.
Walker also ended the year trending up in minutes played. He reached 29 minutes on the floor in the regular season finale at Northwestern. Then, at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, he played a career-best 30 minutes in the season-ending loss to Penn State. Walker not only led the Big Red with seven rebounds against the Nittany Lions, but he also dropped six assists, doubling his previous career high.
All in all, Derrick Walker hit double figures in points three times in the 2020-21 season, leading the Huskers in rebounds four times, blocks six times, steals four times, and assists twice.
This coming season should be much better for Walker and Nebrasketball. Yes, the Big Ten will still be littered with tournament teams, but (hopefully) NU won’t have to navigate through a schedule that more closely resembles an NBA team’s calendar than a college’s, while multiple contributors work back from being infected with Covid, and see the team’s leading scorer leave the program with five games left in the season!
Plus, fans will be back at Pinnacle Bank Arena to help make it a difficult environment for visiting opponents. “You never really know how much the game is for the fans until you don’t have them,” Walker said. “The fans are a big part of this, that’s the reason why we want to go out on the court and put on a show when the lights are on. I haven’t had the chance to play in front of fans here at Nebraska, so that’s very exciting for me.”
Schematically, Walker’s presence on the hardwood helps head coach Fred Hoiberg put his players in better positions to succeed. For example, take Lat Mayen, who was forced to play the five for the first half of last season. In NU’s first four Big Ten contests, he averaged only 5.5 points per game on just 31-percent shooting. Once Walker became eligible, Mayen could play as a more natural stretch four. Mayen went on to average 10.2 points per game on 44-percent shooting over the remainder of the regular season, while still pulling down 4.6 rebounds per game.
Hoiberg will also count on Walker to mentor the younger post players on the team. Second-year 6-11 center Eduardo Andre made strides as the season wore on last February and March. First-year players Wilhelm Breidenbach and Oleg Kojenets will both need some seasoning before they are Big Ten-ready. “These guys want to learn. They’re young, but they’re buying in,” Walker said of the newcomers. Both in practices and in games, Walker can provide valuable leadership to each of them.
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, Walker feels good about the team he is leading. “I’m just excited to have everyone on the court to see what that looks like,” Walker said. “Right now, I think it’s just waiting until we can actually put it on the battlefield and show what we can do.”
In addition to his exploits on the court, Walker graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in child, youth, and family studies. He wrote a piece about his journey that you can read here.
Count it down with me:
· 10 days to ‘Opening Night with Husker Hoops’ at PBA.
· 36 days before the exhibition opener with Peru State.
· 49 days – just seven weeks! – until the regular season begins against Western Illinois.