PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 2: Jabari Walker #34 of the Portland Trail Blazers looks on during the game against the Detroit Pistons on January 2, 2023 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

Rookie Jabari Walker Cracks The Rotation

Trail Blazers rookie Jabari Walker, after turning in the most pleasantly surprising performance at the 2022 Las Vegas Summer League, figured he was in line to get regular playing time in his first season in Portland.

Selected out of Colorado with the second-to-last pick of the 2022 NBA Draft, Walker averaged 12.4 points on 63 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent shooting from three, 9.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.0 block in 22.0 minutes per game during Portland’s Las Vegas Summer League Championship run. While many assumed Walker would be signed to a two-way contract, his play in Las Vegas convinced the team to offer the 6-7 forward a guaranteed deal, which very often isn’t the case for those selected late in the second round.

So given his performance in Las Vegas and the investment from the team, Walker assumed he’d at least be in the rotation once the start of the regular season came around. But despite showing up in Portland early for informal workouts, he ended up playing with the third string during most of training camp and was little-used during preseason -- he only cracked double digits in minutes in two games, both of which were blowouts.

So when Walker didn’t play at all in the first three games of the season and then saw just 13 minutes total, all in garbage time, over the next three games, he realized the assumptions he had made were incorrect. His run in Las Vegas might have earned him a contract, but it didn’t earn him a spot in Chauncey Billups’ rotation.

“I thought I showcased a bit in the summer league and I thought it would immediately kind of translate,” said Walker. “But I understood quickly that it didn’t work like that. There’s people that are ahead of me, there’s people that they trusted over me and that’s just some of the things I had to deal with. And rightfully so, the guys on this team are really good.”

But while Walker might have been frustrated with a lack of playing time, he never showed it nor let it affect his effort. Instead, he dedicated himself to practice, got in extra work before and after practices and games and made a point of going as hard as possible during “stay ready games,” which are practice games of five-on-five the team holds in order to give those who aren’t playing regular minutes the chance to compete.

“It wasn’t like I was scoring the most points during those games, but I just competed,” said Walker. “One of the things Coach told me is he knows when I step on the floor I’m going to be a guy that just loves to compete. I showed that during those games. Even though they weren’t looked at as serious things, I took it as something serious because it was my time to play. I looked forward to those, looked forward to Coach watching so there was an opportunity for him to be like ‘Okay, he provides something that we don’t have right now.’”

Which is why Walker, after only playing spot minutes due to foul trouble or late-game minutes in blowouts in the first two and a half months of the season, is now a part of Billups’ regular rotation at power forward.

“It’s an amazing feeling because I got to study the guys the first part of the season,” said Walker. “It was just kind of frustrating seeing us lose some games when I knew I could be out there impacting in a positive way. Now, for me to know I can do that and actually show it is a fulfilling sensation.”

In the last three games, Walker has averaged 16.6 minutes of playing time after averaging 9.8 minutes in eight appearance in November and just 6.9 minutes in seven games in December. It’s just three games, but Billups did confirm that Walker would be seeing similar minutes going forward, at least in the near term.

“Jabari is a young player but he does one thing that we really need: he rebounds the ball,” said Billups. “He really rebounds and he fights and he plays his butt off, fights hard. His inexperience shows but for me, I just felt like I want to take a look at that. You get better with time and reps and everything, so one, just kind of give him a chance. But it seems like every time we’ve called on him this year, he answers the bell. He gets in there and he scraps and claws -- he was fighting with Isaiah Stewart, he’s fighting with Looney. He just does it. So I just love it, I love that. So yeah, he’s in the rotation right now.”

Walker has responded to the promotion by grabbing six rebounds in each of the last three games while taking just 10 combined shots in 50 minutes of play. But perhaps more importantly, he’s never looked out of place or out of his depth playing alongside of the veterans as his minutes have increased.

“He’s just got a good feel, he’s got a knack for the ball from a rebounding perspective, he cuts usually at the right time,” said Billups. “He has a good feel for the game. Young players like that, when you have them out there with veterans, it gives them a fair chance to look good. You put them out there with the babies, they all gonna probably look bad. It’s good, I thought he played really well in his minutes.”

He feels like there’s more he could be doing -- he’s taken just one three since entering the rotations and almost all of his points have come off of well-timed cuts or offensive rebounds -- and perhaps at some point he’ll be called on to prove it, but as of right now, he’s more than happy to play a supplemental role, especially after having no real role to speak of previously.

“I feel like my job right now is to just complement the guys that are out there and I’ve been doing a good job at that,” said Walker. “It starts off with energy and the trust is just coming from the coaches. You can tell they’re trusting me more and more each game, so I’ve just always got to have those basics of playing with energy. There’s still more I can showcase, but that will be on the back burner for when I need it.”

Walker’s ability to stay ready when he wasn’t playing and provide something useful once he did has not gone unnoticed by his more seasoned teammates.

“He offensive rebounds, he defensive rebounds, he plays with good energy, he’s physical, he’s not afraid, he’s a capable shooter and he cares,” said Damian Lillard. “You see him come out there and he cares about winning and for a young player that’s what you want to see. You want to see them come in and try to impact the game any way they can and I think every game he’s played, he’s done that.

“So I think he’s doing well for himself entering the rotation, especially for so many games to go by where you’re not playing, so many games where you’re not getting in and to not know when your number is going to be called. And to be prepared each time that you do get called, it’s really professional on his side. That’s impressive for a rookie.”

But for as good as he’s been in the minutes he’s played, he’ll have to be even better if he wants to remain in the rotation. Trendon Watford, who Walker supplanted, is likely to redouble his efforts after being demoted and the impending returns of both Justise Winslow and Nassir Little from injury will make the competition for minutes even tougher. He may very well find himself back on the bench, but if he does, it won’t be for a lack of effort.

“The guys on this team are really good, I’ve learned so much from each of these guys, everybody deserves to be in the rotation, in my opinion. I’m just getting a shot right now and I want to take full advantage of it,” said Walker. “If I play with energy, I defend and I’m knocking down shots, I think it’s hard to take me off the floor. So I just want to make it as hard as possible.”