Dallas Walton recalls vividly the day Tory Miller-Stewart was forced to leave practice, grimacing as he exited the CU Events Center for Colorado's medical training room.
Obviously it wasn't known just yet that Miller-Stewart had played his final minute with the Buffaloes, yet it was clear the Buffs' most experienced big man wasn't returning any time soon. And with forward Lucas Siewert already limited by a sprained ankle, Walton understood immediately his role suddenly had changed.
Walton hadn't been expecting to play much more in 2017-18 than he did the previous year, when he spent his true freshman year as a redshirt diligently working to add bulk to his slender 7-foot frame. Thrust into the mix sooner than expected, Walton showed more than a few flashes of being capable of becoming a formidable paint presence for the Buffs.
As the Buffs begin preseason workouts, Walton believes he is ready to take the next step despite spending much of the offseason recovering from toe surgery.
"I liked my readiness last year," Walton said. "Going into the year, I wasn't expecting to play too much. But I was given an opportunity, and I'm glad I was able to capitalize on it. But going into this year, I looked back on last year at some of the things I need to improve on, especially rebounding and how physical I am in the post offensively. Defensively, being even a better presence for this team.
"I was hungry to play at the time and I was looking for that opportunity. Once I was given it, I was going to go out there and work on everything I worked on with coach (Mike) Rohn during my redshirt season and show what I've learned."
Walton played sparingly through the first four games last season, logging 14 minutes during the first two games but remaining on the bench for the Buffs' first two games at the Paradise Jam in Virginia.
Siewert, though, suffered a sprained ankle in the second game of that tournament against Drake, which gets another shot at CU in the Buffs' season opener at home on Nov. 13. Shortly after the Buffs posted a home win against Air Force, Miller-Stewart suffered a season-ending broken foot at practice.
Head coach Tad Boyle turned to Walton to fill the void.
The Arvada West product made his first career start in the Buffs' next game at Colorado State, and he started all but one game the rest of the way. Walton at times showed his year in the weight room was time well-spent, scoring 13 points in a road loss (disguised as a neutral court) against Iowa in December and stirred the CU Events Center crowd by going 7-for-7 with a then-career-best 15 points in an upset win against No. 14 Arizona.
Like the rest of his youthful teammates, though, Walton experienced growing pains. He grabbed a career-best eight rebounds on two occasions last season but averaged just 3.4 on the season, less than 6-foot point guard McKinley Wright (4.7).
"I think a successful year...is to see this team get a tournament. I think that's our only goal and something that I haven't seen since I've been here," Walton said. "As far as personal goals, just be the presence this team needs me to be. Get the rebounds this team needs me to get. So that's more than (3.4). At least six to 10 rebounds, that's my goal."
Walton has been a full participant at practice following the offseason procedure to correct a nagging toe issue, which Walton battled through at the end of last season. While the recovery curtailed some of Walton's time in the weight room, the redshirt sophomore expressed confidence his leg strength has improved.
"Dallas missed a lot of the offseason...so he did not have a summer with us," Boyle said. "Probably the last month, three weeks, he's come back. He could lift upper body a lot in the offseason, but hopefully he can get back on track and hopefully the experience he got last season as a freshman can pay dividends this year."