Tuesday, June 18

Versatile freshman forward Walker makes her mark

If you caught a women’s basketball game in Pauley Pavilion this past season, you might have spotted something unusual from time to time.

Whenever it happened, you could see the basketball purists in the stands wince. But if you had looked down at the sidelines, you would have seen the epitome of calm, cool and collected in the form of head coach Nikki Caldwell. After all, it wasn’t all that unusual for freshman forward Markel Walker to bring the ball up the court with guard-like precision and initiate the offense.

“Her ability to play every position on the floor makes her so difficult to stop,” Caldwell said. “With Walker, our team would not have been as successful without her. She is definitely instrumental in the progress of our season.”

Walker went from being a prized recruit out of Philadelphia to an immediate impact player in just one season. For Walker, such sudden success was not surprising, but rather an expectation fulfilled through long nights and early mornings of hard work on and off the basketball court.

“Basketball drains you, it’s non-stop,” Walker said. “I think I did pretty well this season, but there’s more work to do. In the offseason, I’ve been working on my jump shot more, so I’m hoping that I get to play more as a guard. I hope to help my team out more at different positions.”

The statistics tell only part of the story of Walker’s role on Caldwell’s team. Walker averaged over 10 points to go along with just over seven rebounds per game over the course of the season. That kind of production is good for any player, but another thing entirely for a freshman standout carrying the expectations of a rising program.

“She’s someone who came in as a freshman and right off the bat, I challenged her to take on an important role for us,” Caldwell said. “We wanted her to set the tempo with offense, rebounding and defensive play. She didn’t back down.”

Aside from her impact on offense, Walker made her presence felt on the defensive end. She was a constant threat to take the ball away from an unsuspecting opponent, using surprising quickness and a mental edge that helped her outwit opposing offenses. Her vision and ball-handling was what made Caldwell comfortable with her prized freshman bringing the ball up the floor.

Walker averaged 2.6 assists per game, and did so with a certain degree of difficulty, often weaving passes through tight spaces. That excellence, Caldwell said, is reflected in Walker’s personality off the court.

“Markel academically works very hard in the classroom. She earned being on the honor roll at UCLA,” Caldwell said. “She’s finding success early, and that takes courage.”

For Walker, this season marked both a beginning and an end. It was the end of a transitional period in which she moved across the country and was forced to adapt not just to California, but also to a new program, system and challenge as well.

“It’s been an adventure coming to the West Coast,” the Philadelphia native said.

But Walker hopes that this was also the beginning of a successful career at UCLA, one that she hopes will end with the fulfillment of her highest expectations.

“We can get better,” Walker said. “The goal is to win the Pac-10 Championship, and then the national championship.”

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