By Dylan Barmmer
This is not Henry Walker’s first go-around in the NBA.
Although technically, it just might be.
Formerly known as Bill Walker, the talented new HEAT swingman was once a standout sub for the New York Knicks, appearing in 121 games over parts of three seasons from 2010 through 2012. And even before his time with the Knicks, the former college teammate of HEAT forward Michael Beasley was the 47th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft who would soon appear in 37 games with the Boston Celtics.
But that was then. That was Bill Walker.
This is now. This is Henry Walker.
And this time around, Walker has wasted no time making his “new” name known. To HEAT teammates. HEAT fans. And observers all around basketball’s premier professional league.
Call him Henry. Call him Bill. Call him William Henry Walker (his given name, in full). Call him…
Or, in the words of HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra:
The 6-foot-6, 235-pound Walker has been all of these things and more in his first six games in a HEAT uniform. Determined to make the most of his second NBA chance, the seasoned swingman is playing with a tenacity that could pay huge dividends for the HEAT as they enter the stretch run of the 2014-15 season with a playoff berth hanging in the balance.
It has certainly been an instant impact. Signed to a 10-day contract with the HEAT after carefully honing his craft in three different leagues in the United States, Venezuela and the Philippines since his last NBA action in 2012, Walker became only the third player in HEAT history to score at least 10 points off the bench in each of his first three games with the club.
Walker made his HEAT debut against Philadelphia on Feb. 23, and promptly scored 11 points in 21 minutes off the bench to help pace the HEAT to a 119-108 victory. Walker connected on 4-of-5 shots – drilling three threes and throwing down a thunderous dunk.
Walker’s performance in his next game was not nearly as smooth, but it was certainly more dramatic. Playing a season-high 33 minutes, Walker scored 10 points, pulled down six rebounds, dished two assists and snared two steals in a 93-90 overtime road win at Orlando. Walker finished 3-of-13 from the field, including 2-of-11 from long-range, but those two threes were nothing short of game-changing.
The HEAT trailed 83-75 with just 37 seconds remaining on the clock, but Walker calmly drilled a pair of long threes to punctuate a 10-2 run that forced an 85-85 tie at the end of regulation. The HEAT went on to post a 93-90 win, and Walker immediately etched his new name into the annals of HEAT history.
Walker’s first game-turning bomb came from 26 feet away with 22 seconds left on the clock, and cut the Magic lead to 84-82. Even though Walker had shot just 1-for-11 from the field (including 0-for-9 from long-range) up to that point, Spoelstra called a play to free Walker for the shot, and he delivered in dramatic fashion.
After Magic rookie Victor Oladipo made just one of two free-throw attempts to put Orlando up 85-82 with 21 seconds remaining, Walker again found himself with the ball in his hands, drilling another long 3-pointer off a slick pass from Dwyane Wade to even the score at 85-85 with just two seconds left in regulation. The HEAT won overtime, 8-5, to win the game 93-90 and deflate their in-state rivals.
“He kept on shooting, and that’s what you like,” Spoelstra said after the game. “He has fearlessness about him.”
When asked by the HEAT’s Jason Jackson to recap his heroics, Walker himself insisted he had “nothing to lose,” adding that he “can’t be scared” of such moments.
“I’m just glad they had faith in me,” Walker told Jackson. “I’m glad Dwyane threw that thing to me. I’ve been through a lot. I’m a fighter. I missed a lot of shots, but I stayed in there and made it.”
Two nights later, Walker put forth another bold and big-time performance, scoring a season-high 16 points and grabbing three rebounds in a tough 104-102 loss at New Orleans. Walker hit 6-of-13 shots in that game, including 4-of-9 from 3-point range, and was on the floor for 31 minutes of the hotly contested game.
The next night, with the HEAT facing the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks on the second half of a back-to-back, Walker got his first start in a HEAT uniform. As part of a three-guard lineup alongside Wade and the newly acquired Goran Dragic, Walker scored 10 points, grabbed two rebounds and dished an assist in 26 minutes.
Two nights later against Phoenix, Walker got into some foul trouble and managed just 12 minutes on the court, but he still made an impact on the game with four rebounds and an assist. Most importantly, the HEAT posted an impressive 115-98 win.
And in a March 4 meeting with the L.A. Lakers, Walker scored eight points, pulled down one rebound and added an assist and a steal during a 100-94 win. Walker was on the floor for 25 minutes of that game, including the closing minutes of a very tight game.
In six games with the HEAT, Walker has averaged 9.2 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 24.8 minutes per game. He’s drilled 13 3-pointers, including two or more in five of those six games. And he’s given the HEAT a true spark, attitude and edge off the bench. The HEAT are 4-2 in the six games Walker has taken the floor, with each of the two losses coming by just two points.
While Walker’s instant impact may look like something out-of-the-blue on the surface, the truth is that the HEAT have been preparing to showcase his talents for awhile now.
Walker was originally acquired by the HEAT’s NBA Development League affiliate in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on April 3, 2013 – his second NBADL stop since he was cut loose by the Knicks nearly a year earlier. He never played a game for the Skyforce, opting to sign with Trotamundos de Carabobo of Venezuela’s Liga Profesional de Baloncesto on May 20.
But on October 31, 2013, Walker was reacquired by the Skyforce, and he spent the 2013-14 NBADL season with the club. Walker made a huge impact, averaging 14.7 points and 5.6 rebounds in 29.5 minutes a game over 48 games for the Skyforce, starting 33 of those 48 while shooting 44.7 percent from the floor, including 35.6 percent from long-range. Walker also produced in volume, drilling 98 3-pointers in those 48 games.
After a short stint with the Alaska Aces in the Philippine Basketball Association early last year, Walker returned to Sioux Falls and the NBADL. In 17 games with the Skyforce this season, he averaged 15.1 points, starting eight of those 17 games while shooting 46.8 percent.
With the recent three-team trade deadline deal that brought playmaking veteran Goran Dragic and his brother Zoran to the HEAT, a spot on the HEAT roster opened up for Walker. Spoelstra and the HEAT quickly called him up from Sioux Falls, then wasted little time calling his number.
Walker has eagerly and aggressively answered the calls, and recently earned a second 10-day contract from the club as a reward for his performance.
Walker is still relatively young – in age and in NBA experience and “mileage.” His strongest overall NBA season came in 2009-10, when the New York Knicks acquired him in a trade with the Celtics. After appearing in a limited role in just 37 games for Boston over the previous season-and-a-half, Walker arrived in New York with former HEAT standout Eddie House and J.R. Giddens in exchange for Nate Robinson and Marcus Landry – and made an immediate impact as a hard-charging, sweet-shooting sparkplug for the Knicks.
Walker drained 50 3-pointers in those 27 games for the Knicks, and finished second in the entire NBA with a “true shooting percentage” of 64.9 for the 2009-10 season.
Walker played a prominent role off the Knicks’ bench the following season, averaging 12.9 minutes per game. He appeared in a career-high 61 games, and shot 44.1 percent from the field, including 38.6 percent from 3-point territory. Walker canned a career-high 59 3-pointers that season, and also pulled down a career-best 122 rebounds. The Knicks won 13 more games than they had the previous season, making the 2011 NBA Playoffs as the sixth seed after posting a 42-40 regular season record.
But the Knicks opted to release Walker in April of 2012. Thus began a nearly three-year basketball odyssey that traversed various corners of the globe and a few NBADL cities before reaching the sunny shores of Miami. It’s an inspiring and amazing basketball journey not unlike the recent road traveled by HEAT center Hassan Whiteside. Hard to follow. And even harder to believe.
Whiteside has been an absolute revelation for the HEAT, not only reclaiming a stalled NBA career, but emerging as a unique and dominant force during the most recent act and arc of his career. The HEAT hope that Walker can author a similarly scintillating comeback story – and help them finish a challenging season strong to reach the postseason for a seventh straight year.
After Watching Walker’s performance in his first six games in a HEAT uniform, there’s reason to believe in such a scenario. The statistical accomplishments and shooting heroics are impressive in and of themselves. But when you take a closer look at Walker and his package of size, skills and experience, things look even more promising. You also start to see why Spoelstra and his staff have been keeping close tabs on him for the past several seasons.
Walker is big, long, athletic and powerful. He can play up to three different positions, and while knee injuries have curtailed some of his explosiveness over the years, he remains an excellent and agile athlete – as evidenced by that dunk in his first game with the HEAT.
During his high school days in Ohio, Walker was regarded as an elite athlete and leaper. Dubbed “Sky Walker” by some and compared to Vince Carter by others, Walker teamed with fellow basketball prodigy – and current Milwaukee Buck – O.J. Mayo to lead North College Hill High School to rarefied air (including back-to-back state titles), along with starring appearances in just about every prep all-star affair imaginable.
In fact, Walker ranks as the only prep player to ever earn MVP honors three times at the prestigious Reebok ABCD Camp. He also played on the undefeated (5-0) USA White team at the 2005 USA Youth Development Festival.
Walker went on to sign with Kansas State, where he planned to team up with Beasley to give the Wildcats a formidable one-two punch. Walker’s freshman season was slowed by the first of a handful of knee injuries, but he bounced back to average 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in 31 games as a sophomore in the 2007-08 season. He then decided to declare for the NBA Draft.
Selected by Washington in the second round of the 2008 NBA Draft and then immediately traded to Boston, the West Virginia native and Ohio prep star had no idea he was about to embark on a professional basketball journey that would see him bounce from the northeast U.S. to Venezuela to the Philippines and then back to the southeast U.S. He probably never imagined he would play in four different leagues in three different countries during a particularly hectic three-year stretch.
But through it all, Walker has emerged tougher, humbler and more seasoned than ever before. His brilliant smile suggests that he’s still enjoying the journey, and why not?
He is Henry Walker now. He is back in the NBA. And he is, in a word: