Jabari Walker thought working hard in summer was enough.
The forward in his second season out of Colorado put in ample time on the court and in the weight room during the offseason after his rookie year, and was the most common name you would hear when asking who looked good or most improved during informal workouts prior to training camp.
“I came back this summer with my body changed, with my mind change and knew having opportunities this would come about,” said Walker. “And I think I did a good job proving to them this summer, they loved how much I improved.”
But once the season started, Walker realized rather quickly that resting on offseason laurels wasn’t going to result in playing time. He played sparingly in Portland’s first two games and after a brief uptick in games versus the Sixers and Raptors, saw his minutes dip once again as the calendar turned to November.
“I’m learning that those (minutes) have to be earned throughout the year,” said Walker. “Especially being a young guy, they can be given and taken away whenever, so I don’t want to take that for granted. I don’t want to take minutes for granted, I just want to stay on the narrow. Stay young, stay energetic, stay positive and it will come to me.”
Recently, it seems to be working. The 6-9, 21-year old is backing up Jerami Grant at power forward and has spent some time as a small ball center as well. And thanks in part to his versatility and nose for the ball, Walker is averaging 17.0 minutes per game, significantly more than the 11.1 minutes per game he averaged during his rookie season, and 7.2 points on 46 percent shooting.
“I feel like I’m getting more comfortable, Chauncey is giving us a lot of freedom, he’s confident in me,” said Walker. “The way he vocalizes it has been great. Just feeling comfortable.”
But most importantly, Walker is grabbing 4.8 rebounds per game, which ranks third on the team despite ranking ninth in minutes played. Walker is expected to be an energy guy off the bench, something he knows, and while that seemed a bit hit and miss early in the season, he seems to have found the right gear as of late.
“My energy off the bench has been better,” said Walker. “I think I’ve been more consistent with that. Body feels great, mind feeling great so hasn’t been as much up and down. I just want to show consistency, whether my shot is falling or not, I just want to continue to establish myself as a defender in this league and as an energy guy.”
He turned in one his best games as a pro with 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting from the field and 2-of-3 shooting from three, 10 rebounds, two assists and two steals in Portland’s 121-105 victory versus the Jazz on Nov. 22. More recently, he played an integral part in Portland’s 103-95 victory versus the Cavaliers in Cleveland in a game that saw him set a new career high in rebounds with 12 and in which the entire bench ended with a positive plus/minus while only one starter, Shaedon Sharpe, could say the same.
“I think the energy I’ve had has been contributing to winning,” said Walker. “Second unit has been great the majority of the time. We’ve had some lapses where we’ve let the first unit down and we never want to let the first unit down. We want to keep it either even at the very least or raise it up. There’ no reason for us to have a drop off and that’s just our mindset. So when it does happen, we take pride in that.”
Walker might have been confused at the start of the season about what it takes to get on the court, but he sure seems to know now. He’s still young and mistakes will be made, but as long as he remembers that nothing in the NBA is promised, he’ll have a real chance to reach his full potential.
“Just being consistent with what I’m good at, showing the coaching staff what I can provide night in and night out,” said Walker. “Just grateful to be out there. I put a lot of work in this summer to be in this position, just got to continue to prove I can impact.”