Home away from home: Freshman star Ja’Kobe Walter’s hard work pays off

Freshman guard Ja'Kobe Walter (4) pulls up for a mid-range jump shot during then-No. 20 Baylor men's basketball's nonconference game against Gardner-Webb on Nov. 12 in the Ferrell Center. Kenneth Prabhakar | Photo Editor

By Foster Nicholas | Sports Writer

Competitive, humble and unselfish — these are the three words 6-foot-5-inch freshman guard Ja’Kobe Walter used to describe himself as a player. He said that self belief has helped him lock in when he’s on the court.

“Naturally, like all my life, I just felt like I was always zoned into the game and I was never distracted,” Ja’Kobe said. “I noticed sometimes people on the other team being relaxed. I just never had that thing where I could just relax if I’m in the game.”

Eddie and Sabrina Walter knew their son, who was voted Preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year, could be a star early on.

“It started when he was 5 years old,” Eddie said. “His determination and competitiveness [set him apart]. He wanted to pursue football at the time, and that played a part. But as he got into middle school, he knew right then, he could do something special on the court.”

Ja’Kobe worked alongside his parents to develop a talent that would soon take the college basketball world by storm.

“I was good early, but if you are even a little more athletic than everybody, you’re good early,” Ja’Kobe said. “Everybody was always telling me I was good, but my dad always told me to stay in the gym. So I just stayed in the gym and just kept moving.”

Ja’Kobe was taught early on that his “second home away from home” was the gym. The McKinney native’s work ethic continued to rise, as he said he wanted to do whatever it took to be successful.

“I talk to my family every day,” Ja’Kobe said. “They just encourage me to stay consistent and let me know that I really have a chance [to make it to the next level], but it won’t come unless I keep working.”

On June 22, 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ja’Kobe received his first college offer — which came from none other than Baylor. The offer came in one day before TCU and two days before Oklahoma officially declared their interest in the guard.

“It all just happened so fast,” Ja’Kobe said. “That’s when I noticed people were saying I’m good and I had a chance to be top 10 or top 20 in the country. From there, it just really inspired me, and I just got motivated to keep going without really trying to focus on it.”

At the time, sports nationwide were put on the back burner and families stayed in their homes for months — and those less determined than Ja’Kobe may have let fate take its course. Instead, however unconventional it was, Ja’Kobe kept working with Eddie and turned their garage and driveway into a makeshift gym.

“I was out there all the time,” Ja’Kobe said. “Even if I wasn’t being serious, I just made sure I was touching the ball and making sure I didn’t lose my shot and my handle. I was running the hills, and I was just doing a lot of little things outside just to stay consistent.”

In the time between Ja’Kobe’s first offer from Baylor and his eventual commitment exactly two years later (June 22, 2022), he received 18 other offers from power conference schools and became an elite high school talent with national buzz and high expectations.

“I think he pretty much knew where he wanted to go in seventh grade,” Eddie said. “He knew when he got that first offer, that was just confirmation for us.”

Freshman guard Ja'Kobe Walter finished as ESPN's No. 8 overall recruit for the 2023 class. Kenneth Prabhakar | Photo Editor
Freshman guard Ja'Kobe Walter finished as ESPN's No. 8 overall recruit for the 2023 class. Kenneth Prabhakar | Photo Editor

Ja’Kobe’s official visit was on June 13, 2022, and as his parents recall, he would have committed that very day.

“I think he really knew when we went on an official visit to Baylor, and I always tell him not to commit on a visit,” Eddie said. “He said, ‘Dad, if I had spoken to you the night before, I would have committed right then.’ When we came home, he went upstairs for something and came back downstairs and said, ‘Dad, Mom, I want to go to Baylor.’ So we told him to get them on the phone and call them.”

The rest was history, and a new chapter opened when Ja’Kobe enrolled at Baylor in September. Soon after, the first words were inked on an opening night to remember.

“That game — I wasn’t expecting to do that, to be honest,” Ja’Kobe said. “But I was just hooping. I wasn’t thinking about anything else. In the end, I just had 28.”

What Ja’Kobe wasn’t expecting to do was score the most points by a freshman in his debut in program history, as well as the fourth most points by a freshman in his debut in Big 12 history.

“He knows how to play, but this year, Baylor has actually helped him grow in his game a lot,” Sabrina said. “His IQ has grown, and so we continue to see him work hard. His work ethic — it’s still top-notch.”

Ja’Kobe followed up the performance with two more games scoring more than 20 points and has averaged 17.8 points through the first six games as Baylor basketball remains undefeated (6-0). But the work is nowhere near being done.

“Not to say be fearing of what’s coming up, but you have to know that you have to stay consistent,” Ja’Kobe said. “I know that I have to stay consistent because those games are in the past and I have a lot of games left. I just keep staying in the gym.”

The freshman is currently projected to be a top-five pick in the upcoming 2024 NBA Draft. Ja’Kobe said he knows it will take long hours in his “second home away from home,” along with more big-time moments at Baylor.

“I’ve never really had this much support from a fan base all at once,” Ja’Kobe said. “Just seeing the little comments sometimes when people just say they enjoy watching me play or just enjoy watching us play, we do notice those things and I noticed those things. I just want to say thank you and I appreciate them for all the support.”

Zoned in, whether it be on the right corner on top of the key or not, Ja’Kobe said he’s bleeding green and gold through and through — all while being competitive, humble and unselfish.

“He stays true to who he is,” Sabrina said. “Ja’Kobe is a well-rounded kid, and his character is strong. He is who you see. That’s it. That’s how he is.”

Ja’Kobe and Baylor basketball will be back in action against Nicholls at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Ferrell Center.