The cumbersome brace no longer is secured to his surgically repaired right knee, and a new number adorns his Colorado Buffaloes jersey.
Despite these fresh changes, CU men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle offered this assessment of 7-footer Dallas Walton as the Buffs prepared for the first preseason practice of the 2020-21 season on Wednesday: “Dallas is back to the old Dallas now.”
Friday will mark the two-year anniversary of the torn right ACL that robbed Walton of his entire 2018-19 season. He also suffered the same injury in his left knee twice while at Arvada West High School. Walton returned last season but struggled to make the impact he made as a redshirt freshman in 2017-18, when he averaged 5.7 points and 3.4 rebounds while shooting .461 in 30 games.
In 28 games (though far fewer minutes) last year, Walton averaged just 1.6 points and 1.1 rebounds, while his shooting percentage dipped to .415. Still, Walton flashed his former form a little more frequently down the stretch, and with another offseason in the weight room behind him, Walton is echoing his coach’s assessment regarding his old form.
“With leg injuries, it’s kind of more of a mental battle you’re fighting rather than a physical one,” Walton said. “Your body may be ready physically, but if you’re kind of scared of re-injury sometimes having that brace there kind of reassures you, OK, I can make some moves and if something bad happens, I’m going to be OK. I think it was mainly fighting that mental obstacle over the past year. The big difference for me with the brace versus not with the brace is making my movements laterally. How quickly I’m able to get off the ground. It’s a little bit more freeing.”
When the Buffs tip the season off against South Dakota State on Nov. 25 in a multi-team event at Kansas State, Walton will be wearing No. 13 instead of his familiar No. 35. Walton said he made the switch to honor an aunt who passed away a couple of years ago who wore No. 13 as a volleyball player at Colorado State.
“Last year I wanted to make the change. I just didn’t know who exactly had 13,” Walton said. “I made the change this year because of my aunt who passed away two years ago from cancer. She played volleyball at CSU for four years, was a letter winner up there, and her number was 13. It meant a lot to me and my family to make that switch.”
Walton officially is a fifth-year senior, though he has said repeatedly he plans to petition for a sixth year of eligibility after redshirting as a true freshman and then suffering his knee injury. He may no longer have to make that petition.
On Wednesday, the NCAA announced it is granting an extra year of eligibility for winter sport athletes, just as it did for spring and fall sport athletes. Assuming a semblance of a full season unfolds, it is unlikely any of the Buffs’ most experienced players — like seniors McKinley Wright IV and D’Shawn Schwartz, along with fourth-year junior Evan Battey — will take advantage of the option. Yet Boyle has four true freshmen on the roster he believes can contribute, although it is unlikely the entire quartet will be in line for big minutes. Wednesday’s ruling might allow Boyle the flexibility of using those youngsters however he sees fit without burning an entire season of eligibility.
“I think the decision is a good one for student-athletes. That’s who we’re here to serve,” Boyle said. “I don’t know what the nuances are of it and I haven’t seen the legislation in writing. There’s some questions I have as a coach in terms of what it’s going to look like next year. Because we are a sport that’s limited to 13 scholarships. So I want to see what the back end next year is going to look like. But I think it’s a great decision certainly for the student-athletes we have on campus right now. It’s not something I’ve talked to our guys about. But I want to wait until I know with 100 percent certainty what it’s going to look like not only this year, but more importantly next year.”
There will be no shortage of able bodies at any Buffs practice this year.
CU opens the season with 18 players on its roster. Not only did the Buffs welcome two local standouts to their walk-on contingent over the summer in former Centaurus star Owen Koonce and former Resurrection Christian standout Isaac Jessup, but CU also recently added another new walk-on in 6-foot-10 Will Loughlin, who was a practice player for the CU women’s team last year.
Benan Ersek and Aidan McQuade have returned to the walk-on mix though AJ Martinka, a part of the program the past three years, ultimately opted not to return this season.
“We’ve actually got 18 on the roster, which is a bigger roster than we’ve ever had,” Boyle said. “We’ve got Isaac Jessup and Owen Koonce. They’re really, really good players. They are Division I scholarship-worthy players in my mind. They both really fit in nicely and fit in well. Our practices are going to be really competitive. It’s going to be fun.”