The press was at Walker’s locker because his 12-point, seven-rebound, four-steal performance was a bright spot in the lopsided loss, his grit and hustle a welcomed boost to a young team fighting uphill every night, still searching for its first win after three games. It was particularly notable because Walker only played nine minutes in the second game of the season and six minutes in the season-opening blowout against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Walker reflected on the whirlwind of circumstances and the battle for minutes.
It just goes to show that when people think you have a spot earned or you’re in such a good position — in this league I’m learning that it can go either way,” Walker said. “We have great, talented guys who deserve minutes as well, so it doesn’t make me special. I just have to go out there and show what does make me special and what keeps me on the floor.
When Trail Blazers reporter Casey Holdahl followed by asking if Walker was learning he “can’t get comfortable,” the 21-year-old admitted he was still processing that lesson in his second NBA season. He then paused, treading carefully about how open he should be, before deciding to go ahead.
I kind of thought that there were certain times that I’d be in...but I’m still learning that those have to be earned throughout the year, 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.
A professional athlete saying he will play hard isn’t earth-shattering news, but there was a quiet sincerity and vulnerability to Walker’s response that helped it rise above sports cliché — less lip service and something more akin to a video a high school coach might show to his players as a lesson before practice.
Less than 24 hours later, Walker backed up his words with action, playing an integral part in Portland’s first win of the season: a scrappy 99-91 victory on the road against the Toronto Raptors on Monday night.
In just 16 minutes of action off the bench, the 2022 late second-round pick put a stamp on the game with his relentless motor. Walker did the little things, along with one Herculean block, that’ll help establish a career for himself and lay the bricks for the physical, defensive-minded identity the new-era Trail Blazers want to build.
Trail Blazers center Deandre Ayton, who put up 10 points and a career-high 23 rebounds in the win, lit up with a smile when asked about Walker’s impact against Toronto.
I was hyping him up all day, tonight.” Ayton said. “Jabari minutes [do] not waste...He does beyond what the coaches ask him for.
Filling in as the backup five with Robert Williams III out, Walker was the epitome of showing up outside of the box score, He registered just four points on 2-of-3 shooting and three rebounds, but he battled on the glass, finished strong when called upon and helped secure key stops in the fourth quarter as Portland’s offense went missing.
In that close fourth quarter, with Portland struggling to keep Toronto at bay, Walker had two of his better plays. At the 9:30 mark, he decisively drove the ball at Toronto center Chris Boucher’s chest for a layup. Then a few minutes later, he flustered Raptors forward Scottie Barnes into a miss in the post, gobbling the ball up.
Walker’s best highlight, though, came at the end of the third quarter. Raptors rookie Gradey Dick saw what appeared to be a clear runway on a fast break. Walker eyed him down from the weak side, met him at the summit and won the battle. The play gave Portland a jolt of momentum heading into the fourth with a 80-74 lead.
“Pure filth!” hollered Trail Blazers play-by-play man Kevin Calabro over the home broadcast.
call that a....block pic.twitter.com/FgFm5wqqth— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) October 31, 2023
Maybe most telling of Walker’s impact — and most notable for the developing Trail Blazers — was his fit alongside rookie forward Toumani Camara, who added three points and seven rebounds. Walker and Camara, a fellow late second-round pick, formed a new tag team of havoc off the bench against Toronto. The pair have competed against each other for rotation minutes, but when working together, they mucked up possessions for the Raptors and kept possessions alive for Portland.
TOUUUUUUUUUUUU ☝️ pic.twitter.com/mBtZQoVPBh— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) October 31, 2023
Trail Blazers Head Coach Chauncey Billups said this is how Walker and Camara have to be wired as young, unproven players in the NBA.
If you’re one of those young guys on the team, what are you gonna do that nobody else is doing?” Billups said after the Philadelphia game. “Then put pressure on the head coach to do something to make sure he has to keep you on the floor...Jabari and Toumani are doing an excellent job of that.
With Walker and Camara playing a large part in setting the standard, the intensity stayed high throughout Portland’s roster on the second night of a back-to-back. Shaedon Sharpe skied in for two of the team’s seven blocks. Ayton cleaned up the paint, including a game-deciding offensive rebound in the final minute. The rotations looked more cohesive getting out to shooters, with Toronto going 4-of-29 on 3-pointers for the game.
That all helped explain how the Trail Blazers won on a night they scored only 99 points and just 19 in the fourth. For one game, Portland resembled much more of a collective defensive unit, and the etchings of an identity started to take shape.
Back on Sunday night in the Philadelphia locker room, Walker closed his exchange with Holdahl about earning minutes by laying out his approach going forward, words that proved prophetic the following night in Toronto.
I just wanna stay on the narrow, stay young, stay energetic, stay positive, and it’ll come to me.
Walker and the Blazers face the Detroit Pistons this afternoon at 4:00 PM, Pacific time.