Welcome to our offseason series “Immediate Impacts.” Most rookies don’t provide positive value to their teams right out of the gate. But as we saw last season with guys like Jalen Williams, Walker Kessler and Keegan Murray, some rookies can help their teams from Day 1. We’re breaking down ways that members of this incoming class can have that very impact.
The first trade of the 2023 NBA Draft did not involve the Portland Trail Blazers and Scoot Henderson (much to the chagrin of Damian Lillard).
No, no, the first major transaction of the event came a few picks later when the Indiana Pacers traded their seventh overall pick, Bilal Coulibaly, for the eighth overall pick, owned by the Washington Wizards, and two future second-round picks. The individual selected eighth in the 2023 Draft was a gentleman by the name of Jarace Walker.
Time will tell who ends up being the better player. But reasonable minds will confer that Coulibaly is more of a long-term project. And after a promising 2022-23 campaign and a pretty significant free agency splash, Indiana is no longer in the market for projects.
They have playoff ambitions heading into 2023-24, and for that prerogative, Walker is the better option. But how much better? Can he make an immediate impact for the Pacers next season?
Let’s start with defense. As a general rule, it is incredibly difficult for a rookie to be a positive defender, especially one who will only be 20 years old at the start of the season.
But Walker isn’t just any rookie. He spent his lone college season under the watchful eye of the venerable defensive tactician Kelvin Sampson. Under his tutelage, the Houston Cougars have allowed 60.4 points per game across the last six seasons – second only to Virginia (57.2) over that span. Last season, Walker started 35 of 36 games for Sampson and the Cougars, and it is safe to say that he wouldn’t have earned that privilege if he couldn’t defend at a high level.
During his single season in the Lone Star State, Walker demonstrated a great deal of defensive maturity. More times than not, he knew where he needed to be on the floor and what coverage he should execute.
Take this sequence below, for instance. Here, Walker is tasked with handling two ball screens in quick succession. On the first one, he knows that since he and his teammate (J’Wan Roberts) are like-sized, it is OK to switch the screen. However, for the second action, he properly identifies that it wouldn’t be a good idea to have Tramon Mark (who is only 6-foot-5) switch on to someone who is 6-9 (Deandre Williams), so he shows on the screen instead.
(Sidebar: In general, whether it was defending the ball handler or the screener, Houston’s defense performed well when Walker was involved in defending the ball screen action. According to AutoStats tracking data, when Walker defended the ball handler, Houston was in the 94th percentile in efficiency in defending ball screens. Meanwhile, when he was defending the screener, Houston was in the 97th percentile in defending ball screens.)
The fact that Walker can seamlessly deploy two different pick-and-roll coverages in a matter of seconds is a commendable milestone for someone of his age. And more importantly, it is a strong indicator that he’ll be able to participate in the sophisticated dance that is playing defense in the NBA.
Per our NBA Draft model, only Victor Wembanyama, Taylor Hendricks, Brandon Miller, Cam Whitmore and Anthony Black are projected to have years with a better defensive DRIP within their first six seasons than Walker’s mark in Year 4.
Now, he isn’t without his faults. There are times when he might rotate too early or too late and forfeit an advantage because of it. But his ability to rotate isn’t his main selling point as a defender. That would be his versatility.
Walker is reminiscent of Detroit Pistons big man Isaiah Stewart in that he is built like Barry Bonds but can move with the elegance of Mikhail Baryshnikov. Despite his 240-pound frame, Walker can tango on the perimeter with the swiftest athletes at his position and, on occasion, even switch on to smaller players and put the handcuffs on them too.
His perimeter prowess makes him a synergistic fit at the frontline alongside Myles Turner, the team’s defensive commander-in-chief. When they share the floor together, the Pacers will have the luxury of being able to switch actions involving Walker without fear of losing size on the interior because they know they have Turner manning the fort behind him. This is similar to what the Cleveland Cavaliers do with Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen.
Also like the Cavaliers, the two bigs can flip-flop roles. That’s right, Indiana can switch Turner out on the perimeter as well because Walker is a talented shot blocker in his own right (95th percentile in block percentage American Athletic Conference last year).
(Sidebar No. 2: Walker’s shot-blocking technique is similar to fellow immediate impacts candidate Dereck Lively II in that he aims to block shots right as they are coming out of the hands, which enables him to contest shots with less of a vertical load-up.)
Walker’s shot-blocking numbers speak to a more overarching attribute of his player profile. He has an incredible knack for locating the basketball. Whether it be while hunting blocks, nabbing steals (54th percentile in AAC), or in pursuit of offensive (89th percentile) and defensive rebounds (83rd percentile), Walker has an Inuzuka Clan nose when it comes to pursuing the basketball.
That will allow him to bolster the Pacers’ pedestrian rebounding numbers (29th in total rebounds per 100 last season) and further enhance their turnover creation rates (which means more transition possessions for Tyrese Haliburton).
On offense, outside of his offensive rebounding, the main function Walker can provide right now is passing. Unlike someone like Brandon Miller, whose passing reads are limited by his ball handling, Walker is capable of making high-level finds both in a standstill and while entertaining a live dribble. During season numero uno, most of Walker’s offensive responsibilities will involve the former, where he’ll use his wonderful touch passing to extend/capitalize on the advantages afforded to him by Haliburton.
Unfortunately, the list of offensive contributions he can be reasonably expected to make ends there. Heading into his freshmen campaign, questions persist about his shooting (he was a 34.7% 3-point shooter in college) and his inability to get all the way to the rim on his drives.
But those concerns should be canceled out by his defense, which likely won’t be at the All-Defensive level he could reach at his apex but should still be well above average for his experience level.
But if he can do that – that is, provide positive defense for his position while continuing to be a gifted passer and hound for the Spalding – he could very well pull a Scottie Barnes and be a rookie who starts on a playoff team.
And that very same feat helped propel Barnes to NBA Rookie of the Year honors.