Kedrick Brown didn't work out. Gerald Green didn't work out. Tony Allen hasn't worked out. But each of them have taken turns capturing the attention and at times adoration of Celtics fans. Each was a high flier that dazzled the crowd with impossible dunks. Each played limited minutes from the wing. Each fizzled out when they couldn't back up their potential with actual on-court production.
Enter Bill Walker. He's also an athletic wing that earned only limited minutes because he didn't always "get it" enough for the coaching staff to feel comfortable with him. So why should he be any different than any of the others?
Well for starters Bill Walker is not Kedrick, Gerald, or Tony. He should not be judged based upon the failings of those that preceded him. In addition, while there are physical similarities to the others, the apparent separating factor is from the neck up. Kedrick was tentative, Bill is aggressive (to a fault sometimes). Gerald was lazy, Bill is by all accounts very hard working and dedicated to improvement. Tony has questionable character traits (at the very least in the company he keeps), Bill has done nothing but put the very best foot forward that he can (spending summers in Boston working out and doing community service).
So while we've established what Bill Walker is not, we have yet to fully grasp what Bill Walker is. Potential leads to projection which leads to the project label. But when does the project become a pro? The sample size is small, but that's never stopped us from drawing preemptive conclusions before.
Since we don't have a lot to go on from last year, it helps to first take a step further back in time. Before he was a 2nd round pick, Bill was a highly touted prospect. Back in high school, he was a teammate of OJ Mayo's and still managed to steal much of the spotlight for himself. One scout gushed:
In all of my years of watching high school basketball, I have NEVER seen a player as electrifying as Bill Walker.
Sadly, his rocketship to the stars was waylaid when he ruptured the ACL in his left knee his freshman year at Kansas State. This was actually the 2nd time he had surgery to repair an ACL with his right knee failing him back in 2003. After a strong season with the Wildcats in 07-08 (where he was once again overshadowed by a teammate - this time by Michael Beasley) he declared for the draft and might still have been a lottery pick if he hadn't suffered a 3rd knee injury in pre-draft workouts.
His misfortune turned into the Celtics gain when they made a trade with the Wizards to pick him up. Perhaps emboldened by the success of gambling on Leon Powe, the Celtics were willing to give Bill a shot. Anyone who has seen one of his eye popping dunks is witness to the fact that (barring another injury) Bill's athleticism is the least of his worries.
Walker split his rookie season between the Celtics and the DLeague's Utah Flash. But his time in Boston was eventful. Right from the start (during preseason) he made a name for himself by getting on the nerves of LeBron James and Tracy McGrady. On the court he simply refuses to back down from anyone, anytime, for any reason. I almost wonder if he seeks out the biggest stars and pushes the limit just to prove that he's not afraid of them. Whatever it is, it gets under the skin of the opponents and endears him to Boston fans. I think it is safe to say that he fits in just fine on this team.
As for his game, the best way I can describe it is "ready, fire, aim."
When a shot goes up, he's flying through the air looking for one of those mind numbing putback dunks. When a ball is on the floor, so is he. When his man is headed toward the basket with the ball, ...well, lets just say that Billy takes the "no layups" rule to heart. In short, he's got athleticism and aggression to spare. You can't teach that.
I think you can, however, teach the elements of his game that are lacking. Last year he didn't always know where to be on defense. For that matter I'm not sure he was sure where to be on offense either. He also didn't know how to throttle back the aggression. Paul Pierce has made a career out of making faster, more athletic players look stupid because he's a master of changing speeds.
To use a baseball analogy, Bill Walker is a fastball pitcher. Once the hitter times the pitches, he's bound to catch up to one eventually. Pierce is more of a Greg Maddux, using location and changing velocity to keep batters (defenders) off balance. Some of that is just innate talent on Paul's part. But a lot of it was learned. Bill needs to pick up some tricks of the trade from Paul and keep the other team guessing.
It is a delicate balance. You don't want Bill slowing down too much. Running the break, you want him flying at the rim. But you don't want him running straight into a triple team without knowing where the kickout options are. You want him to fight for every loose ball. But you don't need him literally fighting for it, if you follow.
So that is where coaching and hard work comes in. He's been in Waltham both of the last summers, working with coaches, working out, watching tape, learning the game. He's got good intentions for sure. He wants to take that next step and contribute to the team. He wants to be more than a garbage time dunker and emergency sub.
The thing is, this team has little time to work young players into the rotation. The ever present window inches further down. If he can contribute now, he'll play. If he can't, he'll continue to be this team's human victory cigar. It doesn't help that Marquis Daniels was brought in to back up the wing position. JR Giddens is still here looking to fill largely the same role that Walker is after (in fact, Danny and Doc have hinted at the fact that they might be after the same spot). There are ample excuses to go around if things don't go well.
However, if Bill Walker is worth the adoration we've already heaped upon him, he won't need excuses. If he is going to be the kind of player we all want him to be, then he will make his own opportunities and force the Celtics to play him. If not, then he would simply join the long list of guys that we thought was "next."