With Danny Ainge’s recent spate of D-League call-ups, we are taking a look at a few prospects from the Celtics’ D-League affiliate who might fit on the roster. Today: Red Claws center Ty Walker.
When a point guard comes around a screen against the Maine Red Claws, he generally has two options: Pull up from where he is standing or keep driving to the basket. The former, of course, is the easier solution from an effort standpoint — it’s always a little easier to jack up a jumper than go to the hoop. The latter, provided the point guard’s path is free from obstacles, leads to an easier, more efficient basket.
Therein lies the problem: Ty Walker is a serious obstacle.
Walker, a 7’0 center with a wingspan equal to JaVale McGee’s, has played 23 games so far in his Red Claws career and has started 17 of them. His offensive numbers aren’t mind-blowing (nearly 7 points per game on 64 percent shooting), but they are the numbers of a player who knows his offensive limits. For Walker, those limits are the mainly the pick-and-roll as the screener — he knows how to set his feet, he knows when the ref is going to let him start moving, and he damn sure knows how to finish it off (see the picture above for photographic evidence).
Offense, however, isn’t where Walker is an obstacle. Splitting time with fellow 7-footer Zeke Marshall, Walker is rejecting 3.65 shots (good for second in the D-League behind Jarvis Varnado) in 23 minutes and is pulling down 7.8 rebounds. More impressive, however, is how many shots he alters. In Thursday night’s game against the Iowa Energy, a remarkable amount of drives ended in double-clutch lay-up attempts when the driving player suddenly found his vision obscured by a long pair of waving arms. Walker finished with three blocks, but — and here is where one wishes for SportVU cameras in D-League arenas — the eye test tells us that he altered quite a few more shots as well.
He is, in shorter terms, an extremely effective rim protector for the Red Claws.
Walker’s career wasn’t supposed to get to this point. Two years ago, his Wake Forest career was winding down in relative disappointment. He had declined to redshirt his freshman year and had therefore essentially forfeited a year of his eligibility. The same scouts who had been intrigued by his potential were souring on him when news broke that he wouldn’t be playing the final regular season game of his senior year, nor would he be playing in the ACC tournament after he was suspended for an undisclosed violation of athletic department policy. He was done at Wake Forest.
For Walker, a highly touted prospect coming out of high school, the Wake Forest experience was never a great fit.
“I’m athletic, I can work around the rim, I can shoot the mid-range jumper, but I just wasn’t used for that,” Walker told Celtics Hub on Thursday. “I was just used for shot-blocking.”
Local members of the Wake Forest media wondered whether Walker had played — or more accurately, not played — himself out of a position in the D-League.
“There was a chance he might have been able to play professionally either overseas or in the NBA D-League next season because of his size and still untapped potential,” said one article. “Those chances likely got much slimmer after yet another off-the-court problem.”
This was, of course, somewhat near-sighted despite Walker’s struggles to stay on the floor — the old adage that a 7-footer who can walk and chew gum can play professional basketball is true, even if it isn’t applicable here. Celtics fans know what a 7-footer who can’t walk and chew gum looks like, and it looks quite a bit like Fab Melo. Ty Walker is not Fab Melo.
After leaving Wake Forest, Walker played briefly in France before being cut and winding up in Poland.
“Poland was alright, but I prefer it here in the states,” he said. “Just being able to show my athleticism against guys who are similar to me. I like that competition.
So European opponents were a little overwhelmed?
“They have never seen that kind of athleticism ever overseas,” he said, smiling.
He may not be wrong. Walker can move his feet extremely well and leaps like the paint is a trampoline and his opponent is standing next to him on the grass trying to throw the ball over his rising fingertips.
But where he really shines is defending the pick-and-roll, and it’s his work (and his fit) on the defensive end that may draw the eyes of Celtics’ scouts.
The Celtics have frequently been utilizing a PnR defensive scheme called Ice. The main tenet is simple — keep the ball on one side of the floor, because it’s much easier to defend. An Iced PnR ball-handler is forced away from the middle of the floor toward the sideline, utilizing the side and baselines as extra defenders. While the ball-handler works his way around a screen, the post defender stays back, preventing both an effective roll and a drive into the lane. Icing is meant to encourage mid-range jumpers and inefficient shots.
In this role particularly, Walker is a menace.
“Any time you have big men with length and size, ice is a good move for you,” said Red Claws coach Mike Taylor, who routinely can be heard screaming for the scheme — in an increasingly raspy voice — throughout the game. “It’s a type of situations that limits mobility and movement of the big man. Ty can move for a big man, but [Ice] helps him play to his strength.
“It’s a Celtics philosophy,” Taylor added, “But Ty’s a piece to that puzzle that fits well.”
“Basically, it just allows me to stay in front of the guards and help them out a bit,” Walker said. “We have to keep guards on the side, and prevent them from shooting open threes.”
Ice works wonders in the D-League where jump shooters aren’t as efficient and the talent pool isn’t quite as deep. Against a shooter like Steph Curry, like many defensive schemes, it would break down quickly, but Walker appears to have the foot speed necessary to recover in time. The player who was Mr. Basketball in North Carolina in 2008 and was once a top high school prospect still lingers. Whether or not that player becomes a legitimate NBA prospect remains to be seen.
Ty Walker, two years ago after a suspension ended his Wake Forest career: “I’ve been dealt probably the worst hand anyone can ever be dealt in a collegiate basketball career.”
Walker on Thursday, when asked about his college career: “I blamed a lot of things on a lot of other people instead of taking responsibility for my actions.”
He trailed off briefly.
“I’m 24 now,” he continued. “I’m trying to grow up and approach life with a new mentality, especially on the court. I want to show people at Wake Forest that I can actually play the game, that I wasn’t a complete bust.”
He already has. The people who believed his problems with the team would harm his chances of sticking with a D-League team are being proven wrong daily as Walker’s stock grows. A scout contacted regarding Walker praised his length, his shot-blocking and his upside.
“I think Ty is getting better as a post defender one-on-one,” Taylor said. “Physicality is a knock on him. He’s getting better each game physically. It’s just one of those situations where you try to help these guys add pieces to their game. As a shot blocker, as a rim protector, he’s one of the best in the D-League.
Walker should probably add some weight. Listed at 7’0 and 230 pounds, he has a thin base that could likely be pushed around by NBA muscle, although in any workout regimen he would need to be careful to keep his mobility, which is his best defensive trait. But the phrase “rim protector” might be an attractive one for Boston. Despite the Celtics’ recent rash of losses, they are allowing 98.9 points per game (9th overall) and have a defensive rating of 105.6 (14th overall). Somehow, with a roster full of power forwards and bereft of anything remotely resembling a rim protector, the Celtics are in the top half of the league in both categories. The addition of a rim protector who knows and understands how to execute Boston’s defensive schemes would probably help.
For his part, Walker claims ambivalence.
“[The Celtics] don’t have as many centers,” he acknowledged, “but I like playing for this organization. Maybe if I get lucky and work hard enough, I’ll get called up at some point. I have to be more physical, but at the same time, I have to remain consistent. I can’t show up one day and disappear another. I have to be a constant defensive force.”
It’s good that Walker recognizes his obstacles. After all, whatever he can recognize and fix will only make him a better one himself.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.