Ja’Kobe Walter keeps focus on current team, tournament

Freshman guard Ja'Kobe Walter became the sixth McDonald's All-American in program history. Lariat file photo

By Michael Haag | Sports Editor

Freshman guard Ja’Kobe Walter is different from a typical one-and-done star.

Walter, who was named Big 12 Freshman of the Year, stays present in the fact that he’s a current Baylor Bear. Being a projected lottery pick in the 2024 NBA Draft a few months from now hasn’t crossed his mind during the grind of Baylor’s season.

“I don’t really think about the lottery pick stuff because that’s just something I expect out of myself anyway,” Walter said. “But I know right now, and what moment I’m in right now, I’m trying to win. … I’m trying to win the national championship.”

There was a play in Baylor’s 93-85 comeback win over Texas on March 4 when Walter attacked the basket with a full head of steam. The 6-foot-5 guard went chest to chest with two Longhorn defenders to draw a foul at the 9:12 mark, crashing onto the floor in the process.

Walter could’ve protected his body, something most high-caliber players would be advised to do given that the NBA Draft is just a few months away. The McKinney native doesn’t think twice about it, though.

“It’s always been about the team,” Walter said. “When we’re in games, I just want to do whatever it takes, and I pride myself on being an energy guy and doing tough plays. And so yeah, just putting my body on the line, that’s always just something that’s come naturally.”

Walter became the second-straight Baylor freshman to win both the preseason and postseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year distinctions, mirroring Keyonte George from last year. Oklahoma State is the only other program to have done that in the conference.

Securing the award after being the favorite to win it before the year started made it extra gratifying, according to Walter. He added that his expectations for this season haven’t been fully met.

“I expect myself to do a lot more than what I did,” Walter said. “Obviously I think that’s just any player that just wants to be great. Things I still want to work on, just finishing around the rim better, being more consistent and then just knowing that I’m going to be a player that’s scouted harder. I just want to still be able to do what I do, no matter what the scout is or how the defense is playing me.”

Walter burst onto the scene when he set the program record for most points by a freshman in his debut with 28 against Auburn on Nov. 7, 2023. He became just the fourth freshman in Big 12 history to score at least 28 in his debut, and he was the only one to do it against a power-conference foe.

That start let the country know what type of player Baylor had, and what he was going to do throughout the year.

“Probably what impresses me most is how mentally tough he’s been all year,” said senior guard RayJ Dennis, an All-Big 12 Second Team selection. “I think you see a lot of freshmen with that type of notoriety and expectation. He’s had a couple of bad games, you could see them drop off, like probably most guys honestly, and he’s been able to stay strong and stay mentally tough and stay locked in and great all year.”

Walter averages a team-leading 14.2 points per game and has scored in double figures in 24 of 33 contests this year. He most recently put up three points against Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament, which snapped a 10-game streak of 10 or more points in each outing.

Head coach Scott Drew said Walter is a “sponge” who is a lethal scorer that plays selflessly.

“Five-star guy, zero-star maintenance,” Drew said. “[He] wants to get better each and every day, works hard each and every day. [He’s] never about his stats, never about his numbers, never about any of that. It’s all about the team and it’s all about winning. Whenever you have guys like that to coach, it’s really a joy and an honor to be a part of their development.”

Walter is expected to be Baylor’s fourth-straight top-16 pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. The Bears are the only team with three-straight top-16 picks, and Walter could add onto that train of Davion Mitchell (ninth overall to Sacramento in 2021), Sochan (ninth overall to San Antonio in 2022) and George (16th overall to Utah).

But March Madness is here, and that’s the only thing on Walter’s mind.

“The coaches and players that have been a part of something like this, they just told me like, this is a time where you really have to shine,” Walter said. “This is the time when the great players really show that they’re great. So I just want to come into this postseason and just do what I expect myself to do, just hoop, do whatever it takes to win.”