2023 Orlando Magic Draft Preview: Jarace Walker is versatility, an ultimate connector

Mar 16, 2023; Birmingham, AL, USA; Houston Cougars forward Jarace Walker (25) shoots against Northern Kentucky Norse forward Chris Brandon (21) during the second half in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at Legacy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 16, 2023; Birmingham, AL, USA; Houston Cougars forward Jarace Walker (25) shoots against Northern Kentucky Norse forward Chris Brandon (21) during the second half in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at Legacy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports /

What is versatility?

That is the buzziest of buzzwords in the NBA. And it seems to take on a life of its own when it comes to the NBA Draft.

Teams are looking for versatility in every form.

There is positional versatility — the ability to defend up and down a position.

This is something a lot of teams have valued but has been at the center of this Orlando Magic team. They love players who have long wing spans and can play seemingly bigger than they actually are.

The league’s love of switching schemes to close down the pick-and-roll and spread-heavy offenses in the league makes players who can guard the post and the perimeter that much more important.

There is also skill versatility. This year’s NBA Finals made clear how valuable and how difficult it can be to have players who do things that are unusual for their size. Whether it was Nikola Jokic running 5/1 pick and rolls with Jamal Murray and putting pinpoint passes to cutters or Bam Adebayo being a master of dribble handoffs and working from the high post, the center is a playmaker in the NBA today.

Versatility is the biggest buzzword for the Orlando Magic and in the draft process. Jarace Walker is the definition of this versatility as a big who can seemingly do a lot.

The Orlando Magic certainly believe that with two 6-foot-10 forwards who playmake and attack off the dribble.

Versatility is the word of the day. And every team is looking for their Nikola Jokic or Draymond Green as players who can invert defenses and put pressure on teams who are still a bit behind the times.

That is the intersection that Houston forward Jarace Walker sits at.

Walker is a connector. He is the kind of player who takes pleasure in doing the little things that makes a team better — setting a screen or digging out a rebound. He does all this as a versatile player, capable of working the high post for a pass to the paint or into a dribble handoff or defending essentially any position on the floor.

Walker is the kind of player who clearly thrived in college because he is not seeking glory and just wants to win but could thrive even more in the NBA because the league knows how to take advantage of players who just live to make others better in this way.

Walker averaged 11.2 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game and 1.3 blocks per game. He had shooting splits of 46.5/34.7/66.3. Those numbers capture a lot about Walker, but not all of him.

Neither do his measurements — 6-foot-6.5 without shoes with a 7-foot-2.5 wingspan according to measurements at the NBA Draft Combine.

Walker has all the physical tools and skills to be a connector on the level that Green was. He showed in college that he is able to defend multiple positions and facilitate the offense.

This is always what stands out about Walker.

He always seems to be in the exact right place and spot within the offense. When defenses collapse around others, he crashes the basket. When he has the ball in the high post, he absorbs the pressure and finds the right pass.

He is an exceptional screen setter too, using his big base to absorb contact and spring teammates free.

This is what I mean when I say he is an excellent connector. He sort of greases the wheel offensively, doing all the things that keep the machine humming smoothly.

The same goes for his defense. This is where he is going to be making most of his impact early in his career defensively.

He has the size and strength to defend the post, but he is excellent at all levels of defense. He does a great job getting himself in front of his man and using his strength to take the first hit and absorb contact. In help side, he reads plays excellently and comes over to block and challenge shots well.

Walker is the kind of player that can seemingly go anywhere. He understands how to use his strength well and catches quicker defenders off guard with his anticipation and discipline holding his spot.

Every team loves having a player who can make others better and whose style is designed to make everyone better. Walker is going to be that player for some team. It is hard to imagine his hard-working style not paying off.

The two big questions with Walker will come down to whether he can truly play above his size and whether his offensive game can expand.

While he is a great facilitator,  his offensive game is still fairly limited. He is good at what he does for sure — simple hooks and floaters, hanging out in the dunker spot for putbacks and dump offs — but his game is certainly bound to the interior.

He is an improving jump shooter, making 34.7 percent of his 2.8 attempts per game. That at least shows a willingness to shoot when open. And he was able to hit from the corners on spot-ups.

But his offensive movements beyond explosive plays are still very deliberate. He is not going to shoot unless he is wide open. And that is not where he is comfortable playing offensively.

The issue then becomes his space for growth.

He only made 66.3 percent of his 2.2 free throw attempts per game. That suggests two things — first his shooting may not come around because he is such a poor free throw shooter and second he is not absorbing a lot of contact or being aggressive enough to get to the foul line.

It also points to how limited his offensive game still is. As good of a connector as he can be, he can still be a bit simple on offense.

Defensively, he is good and knows how to use his strength well. But listed at 6-foot-7, can he really defend the centers in this league? Is he really the next coming of Green or is he just another undersized center?

That is perhaps the big question. Because if Walker is not strong defensively, then his role suddenly becomes very limited. Even for as skilled as he is and how much he helps those around him work.

Versatility is valuable. And Walker has the kind of versatility that will make a team better. The question is can they give him the space to operate offensively and help revolve around him and cover for those defensive deficiencies?

That is the bigger question for the Magic as they consider whether to draft Walker.

Walker is a connector. He will set screens to spring players free and keep the ball moving in intelligent ways. He is undoubtedly going to be a valuable player in the NBA. It is just going to be about getting the most out of him.

For a Magic team without good shooting, perhaps Walker is the kind of player that can give players the extra space to get their shots and score. Or perhaps his skills will be compressed as teams collapse the paint and give him no outlet to find shooters.

This is the puzzle for the Magic — a puzzle that is not limited to just Walker. Where does he fit and what is his path to playing on a roster full of versatile bigs? What does he bring that is unique or adds to the team?

Walker is a good player. He will be a contributor. He will be a versatile playmaker and defender for whatever team drafts him. But he will need to expand his game. He has the potential to do so. It is there. But it will take a long way to get there.

For a Magic team that already has plenty of versatile players, they need players that enhance that talent. Walker can do that in some ways. But he may struggle to do it in other ways.

That will be the challenge with Walker for sure. And the question is whether the Magic can get the most out of Walker just as Walker can get the most out of him.

Next. Draft Preview: Dereck Lively has more to show. dark

Still, Walker has the versatility that every team wants. He is a connector. And someone who will help any team.