Laying Low: M.J. Walker Takes His Time Ahead Of Nike Hoop Summit
It was this past July, in a hotel room in Valdivia, Chile, that a blow dryer remained on high through the night.
It was a cold, rainy Chilean winter at the time, and M.J. Walker wasn’t sure the hotel had the heat on during the night. Some of Walker’s teammates probably didn’t enjoy the extra noise, but what’s a man to do out of his element?
That entire experience was something different for Walker, who was a member of the gold medal-winning USA Basketball U18 National Team that won 2016 FIBA Americas U18 Championship.
“It exposed me to a lot of different things,” he said. “I didn’t play a lot down there, but it just taught me how to be a good teammate, regardless. I learned a lot just competing with those guys in practice. Practice, for me, I feel like that was where I got my time in, just competing a lot.”
The USA U18s went 5-0 and captured the gold medal, with Walker playing in four games, averaging 2.0 points and 1.8 rebounds per game.
“It was tough, but the same time, it wasn’t about me. It was about the team and about winning.
“I had to change my mindset to just do whatever I could do to help those guys get better in practice. It made me a better person and a better teammate overall, just learning from all of that.”
Walk-throughs at the hotel, he mentioned, were even intense, and he recalled nearly tweaking his ankle doing close-outs.
“It was intense, and just a different environment. The seriousness was taken to a different level. Everybody was dedicated and focused on one goal.”
His dedication to helping the U18s win gold is likely another reason Walker secured a spot with the 2017 USA Junior National Select Team for the 20th annual Nike Hoop Summit on April 7.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound guard will enter the event after a successful senior campaign at Jonesboro High School, just south of Atlanta. Walker’s 27.8 ppg., 6.5 rpg. and 2.4 apg. led the Cardinals to a 23-6 record this season as he was named the 2017 Atlanta Journal-Constitution 6A Player of the Year.
“We couldn’t get that state championship, but ultimately, as a team, we grew. It was a blessing. Those guys played with heart, and that’s everything I could ask for. They played like dogs and definitely wanted to win all year.”
This past week, Walker featured for the winning West team in the 2017 McDonald’s All-American Game, where he also won the Jack Daly Sportsmanship Award, given to the player who exhibits the best sportsmanship during the week of the game. He particularly appreciated the opportunity to reunite with his USA Basketball teammates on the national stage.
“I really enjoy competing with those guys. You don’t get that too often. A lot of ranked players and guys that play at a high level every day. It was exciting just being with them on and off the court. A lot of those guys have a high IQ for the game, so it’s a lot of fun.”
The week of exposure in Chicago didn’t overwhelm Walker, by any means, despite him being one of six undeclared players at the event. He’s one of four on the USA Nike Hoop Summit roster without a decided plan for next year, and as the questions about his future arise, he’s committed to one thing – laying low.
He’s never pushed the issue with his recruitment, making it very clear that he would instead focus on enjoying his senior year of high school at Jonesboro.
“I understand people would like to know about my recruitment and everything. It’s not really me hiding from the media or anything. I’m just taking my time with it. I’m not rushing. I’m making sure I find the right fit for me, so I can be confident in my decision.”
His list is down to eight schools, which is abnormally large for recruits heading into April. He’s only taken an official visit to one school – Florida State University – and a couple of unofficial visits to his lone in-state option, Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). For a player ranked by ESPN as the No. 19 overall prospect in the class of 2017, Walker has purposely stayed off the grid.
He plans on squeezing in some visits after the Nike Hoop Summit. Nothing is lined up right now, but he’s, “getting the ball rolling on that,” he said.
“You have to separate who’s saying what just to get you there. That’s why I have to take my visits. I have to see what the school is like, and how I feel about being away from home. I’m just blessed to even be getting a scholarship to play basketball and go to school.”
This entire process has been about staying true to himself. He’s “low-key” by nature, and a family-man, too.
Both of his parents, Jackie and James, competed at the collegiate level. James played at Norfolk State University, while Jackie was a member of the 1988 NCAA Division II National Championship team at Hampton University. Basketball is in Walker’s blood.
“They are definitely very competitive. They are on me a lot about my work ethic. Even when I feel good about my game, they have just instilled in me to always work hard.
“When your work ethic is strong – even if you have a bad game – if you continue to do what you do, it’s going to show sooner or later. Their impact on me has been strong, with their competitiveness and will to be better.”
And that’s how Walker has journeyed to the point he’s at now. His will to compete, whether it be in practice or in hotel walk-throughs, has always shown. His team-first attitude, along with his physical frame have attracted coaches far and wide. Regardless of the school he ultimately chooses, he believes he’s bringing more to the table.
“They will get a quality young man,” he said. “I think my parents raised me the right way. They shouldn’t have to worry about me making the wrong decisions. I’m not perfect, by far, but I’m definitely going to represent the college that I choose the right way.”
That school certainly will offer the fields of study he’s looking for – architectural engineering or business management. That’s the request of his mother, too, he noted.
A new basketball family is really what Walker is looking for, and a team that he can help win, so long as his teammates want to win as much as he does. Oh, and some warm weather would be nice, too.
Don’t miss Walker and his USA teammates in the 2017 Nike Hoop Summit, and get your tickets now: http://bit.ly/HoopSummitTix.