In Jabari Walker, Colorado basketball fans saw an electric, NBA-caliber prospect who kept the Buffaloes afloat on Monday at Utah long enough for the rest of the team to catch up.
Head coach Tad Boyle just saw a talented player who simply was playing smarter.
Walker enjoyed a breakout game in the 65-58 win against the Utes, posting the first double-double of his young career with 15 points and 10 rebounds. It was a somewhat unexpected boost for the Buffs, given that Walker had barely been able to stay on the floor over the previous two games after suffering foul trouble very quickly.
If Walker can use the effort as a sort of blueprint, he will almost assuredly be a key presence as the Buffs attempt to make noise in the Pac-12 Conference race — particularly with the status of injured 7-footer Dallas Walton uncertain. Boyle said the adjustment Walker had to make after his two brief outings heading into the Utah game were far more mental than physical.
“Number one, he’s just got to play smarter. Part of it’s the scouting report. Part of it is just making smart plays and staying away from the silly fouls,” Boyle said. “And that’s what Jabari has to do. We’re really good when he’s on the floor. Especially with Dallas being out. The base message to him was play smart, learn from your mistakes. Understand the definition of a foul is when the official says it’s a foul. So you’ve got to figure out officials and what they’re letting go that particular night. He’s going to be a great player.
“The thing I love about Jabari is he is not scared of anything or anybody. He just plays with such passion and joy. Just got to keep learning. That’s what your freshman year is for, to keep learning from your mistakes and also from your successes. Hopefully the rest of our guys can learn from Jabari as well.”
Walker went scoreless for the first time this season during CU’s Jan. 2 loss at UCLA and didn’t even get off a shot attempt after managing to commit four fouls in just eight minutes on the floor. It was a similar story during last week’s home win against Oregon, as four fouls limited Walker’s contributions to four points and four rebounds in 13 minutes.
While Boyle focused on Walker’s mental approach, the 6-foot-8 forward went into the Utah game looking to use his athleticism more efficiently on defense to avoid those quick fouls.
“I think the main thing is just moving my feet,” Walker said. “I’ve been getting most of my fouls on their guys posting me up. Just using my advantages like moving around, using my feet, using my length to not pick up those fouls and just play solid defense.”
Walker went 3-for-4 in the first half at Utah with 10 points, providing a lifeline for a Buffs team that struggled to a 6-for-29 (.207) mark by players not named Walker during the opening half. Walker also contributed to CU’s game-changing 15-0 run to open the second half, taking a feed from McKinley Wright IV to convert a 3-point play off a fast-break layup.
Walker’s next challenge will be to piece together those sorts of performances more consistently, beginning with Thursday’s home date against Cal (Noon, Pac-12 Networks).
“Jabari Walker is special, man,” CU senior D’Shawn Schwartz said. “I have nothing else to say but just positive things. He’s an unbelievable freshman. It’s crazy to see a guy come in there and contribute at that level for his age. I wish I was here longer to play with him.”