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Jabari Walker Putting It Together for the Trail Blazers

The sophomore big has enjoyed inspired play through the early part of the season. How far can he go?

Utah Jazz v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers came out of the 2022 NBA Draft with a pair of teenagers. The enigmatic Shaedon Sharpe was taken seventh with plenty of hype but without a real track record after forgoing his college year at Kentucky. Hours later, Jabari Walker was selected with the penultimate pick of the draft with little fanfare, despite being the son of former NBA player Samaki Walker.

The selections came days after hiring guru scout Mike Schmitz as Assistant General Manager. This tweet told Blazers fans all they needed to know about Schmitz’s feelings about Walker:

Walker’s playing time in his rookie season was typical of a second round pick: inconsistent. But when he made it onto the floor, his hustle and willingness to rebound were staples. He ended the season with averages of 3.9 points on 28.6 percent three point shooting, 2.3 rebounds and 0.6 assists in 11.1 minutes.

Once Damian Lillard’s trade request was made public on July 1, the Blazers skewed young, opening opportunities for the mature sophomore, eager to make his mark. In late July, I suggested Walker being a real contributor for the franchise in 2022-23.

The 21-year-old was primed for a sophomore leap and with a full campaign under his belt, his skill set could be put to use on a rebuilding roster.

Jabari Walker has a real opportunity to stake his claim as a versatile rotation-level frontcourt NBA player this season. He’s able to operate on both sides of the ball, possessing dogged determination, finesse and smarts that should contribute to winning basketball in time.

With the Blazers leaning into development this season, there might be no better time for Walker to thrive in a larger role off Portland’s bench, playing whatever role Billups deems necessary.

Coach Chauncey Billups has similar hopes for his fellow Colorado Buffalo. After Wednesday’s win against the Utah Jazz, Billups highlighted Walker’s willingness to work harder, particularly after being supplanted by Toumani Camara in the rotation.

“The work that he put in from the end of last season, throughout the summer, is just incredible and you could see it every single night. The things we talked about in our exit meeting that I need him to get better in and at and pay attention to and get better everywhere, he just attacked it man, he just attacked it.

It was quiet all summer and he stayed on his grind and did his thing and most young players do feel this way, ‘if I do everything that coach said do, then that means that I’m going to be in the rotation’. But what they forget is there could be 10 other guys doing the same thing that the coach said do. And you still got to be competing for minutes.

I think where Bari has an edge over a lot of people is he’s such a gifted rebounder and he’s so competitive. He’s one of our most competitive guys, he’s tough as hell and he’s obviously playing for a coach that respects him and loved and honors that.”

On Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz, opportunity and effort culminated in a career-first double double for Walker in a standout performance. He inspired off the Blazers bench, putting up 19 points and 10 rebounds to go with 2 assists and 2 steals, not to mention shooting 2 of 3 from long range.

Walker was his usual aggressive self, hunting offensive rebounds and twice pulling the ball out of an opponent’s hands. He was able to maintain the aggression while remaining composed. He was able to cut out the unforced errors and make good decisions while maintaining his trademark intensity.

Through the early part of the season, Walker’s improved shot mechanics hadn’t shown much fruit despite the 2.1 attempts he’s been registering each game. But the repetition finally produced results on Wednesday with Walker hitting two of his three long-range attempts.

I’ve got full, and perhaps irrational, confidence that Walker can someday emulate his fellow power forward Jerami Grant and edge closer to 40 percent, given his stroke and willingness to improve.

Walker’s offseason weights regime also appears to have helped accentuate his skills. His natural inclination has always been to play through contact. Unfortunately, last season, he lacked the requisite strength to match said desire. Already this season, we’ve seen multiple examples where Walker has been able to bully his way to the rim, whether from the baseline or downhill.

Below we see Walker take the ball to the rim against the sturdy 6’11 Kelly Olynyk, able to get his shot up over the big man in spite of the contact. I’m not sure that play would have ended with a bucket last season.

With Robert Williams III out for the year, Billups seems committed to using the 6’8 Walker as a backup five alongside Duop Reath. Thanks to his lateral quickness, his frame and instincts, Walker’s lack of height becomes less of an issue and allows him to defend down low and on the perimeter against smaller guards and wings. He comfortably corralled Collin Sexton during crucial third quarter minutes on Wednesday.

So far this season, lineups involving Walker rank in the 96th percentile in offensive rebound percentage and 91st percentile for opposing team’s turnovers. While I can’t give him all the credit for the turnovers, I think he’s played a hefty role on those offensive rebounds.

He’s averaging 7.9 points on 31.3 percent three point shooting, 4.5 boards, including 1.5 on the offensive end, 0.7 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.5 blocks

Among bigs, Walker has gone from 142nd last season to sixth this season in steal rate, from 135th to 37th in defensive boards and from 87th to 45th on the offensive glass. He’s risen from 116th to 38th in block rate, from 81st to 28th in taking care of the ball, from 132nd to 44th in midrange shooting and from 158th to 74th scoring at the rim.

Walker is now less of a liability on the defensive end, most likely helped by a larger frame and better understanding of NBA offenses. On the other end of the floor, he has a cleaner shot and a few more tricks in his bag, perhaps thanks to his time spent with Los Angeles Clippers wing Paul George.

Walker’s progression means Billups has a power forward rotation he can trust 48 minutes a night. He also has a versatile young guy able to serve as a small-ball five for periods. While Walker may give up three or four inches to opposing big men, his frame, athleticism and near seven foot wingspan mean he can hold his own pretty much anywhere on the defensive end. His size, ferocity and selfless approach to the game make him an ideal contributor for the Blazers. While he’s not necessarily a starting level power forward, I’ve got no doubt about his willingness to get there if that’s what he wants.