‘I never looked ahead’: Freshman phenom Ja’Kobe Walter pours his all into Baylor

Freshman guard Ja'Kobe Walter finished with the second-most points (508) in a freshman season in program history. Camie Jobe | Photographer

By Michael Haag | Sports Editor

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Ja’Kobe Walter could’ve coasted through his one-and-done season. Baylor could’ve been a pit stop. He didn’t have to care.

That’s never been Walter, though. That’s not his style.

“I never looked ahead,” said Walter, a projected lottery pick in the 2024 NBA Draft. “I always just wanted to be in the moment.”


Walter had a chance to tie the game after helping the Bears (24-11) rally back from as much as a 15-point deficit with 6:41 to go. He stood at the free-throw line with two shot opportunities as Baylor trailed by two points with 36 seconds left.

Both clanked off the rim.

No. 6 seed Clemson (23-11) went on to beat No. 3 seed Baylor 72-64 on Sunday night in the FedExForum, and Walter immediately buried his teary-eyed face in his jersey.

Freshman guard Ja'Kobe Walter (left) buries his face in his jersey as the clock strikes zero of No. 3 seed Baylor men's basketball's loss to No. 6 seed Clemson on Sunday in the FedExForum. Camie Jobe | Photographer
Freshman guard Ja'Kobe Walter (left) buries his face in his jersey as the clock strikes zero of No. 3 seed Baylor men's basketball's loss to No. 6 seed Clemson on Sunday in the FedExForum. Camie Jobe | Photographer

Walter dropped to his knees, gutted after realizing the Bears’ run ended in the round of 32 for the third straight year. For the McKinney native, this is probably his first and last taste of March Madness, as he’s fully expected to enter his name in the upcoming NBA Draft.

But none of that ever crossed his mind. It’s always been about what’s directly in front of him.

“This is really hard,” Walter said as he choked up at the podium. “We had big plans, and I know we could have [done] them. … Every game, I just went and put my body on the line because I loved my teammates so much, love the coaches so much.”

Missing those two free throws crushed the 2024 Big 12 Freshman of the Year the most. Walter finished the game with 20 points.

“We work on free throws all the time,” Walter said. “So just missing them really hurts for sure.”

Not only did Walter miss the two crucial ones at the end, but he finished 5-for-11 from the charity stripe on the night.

Senior forward Jalen Bridges said the team’s message to Walter after the game was to “use this as fuel.”

“He’s one of the most talented players that probably anybody in this locker room has ever been around,” Bridges said. “He has a bright future ahead of himself.”


Walter had one mission when he got to the Baylor locker room after the defeat: Find every teammate, coach and staff member and give them a long, almost minutes-long, embrace.

It wasn’t a group thing where he could check several boxes at once. The hugs and comments were personalized for each person, and Walter made sure to show his love and appreciation for those individuals.

“It just shows the type of player, person and character that he has,” senior forward Caleb Lohner said of Walter. “He’s been someone who, yeah, he has been a projected lottery pick all year, but that didn’t affect the way he brought his effort and connection with the team.

“So I just think that’s special in somebody like that. I think wherever he ends up, they’re going to be lucky to have him.”

Walter then made his way to the postgame media room where he had to face a room full of reporters. Fighting back tears until the end, he wrapped up what could be his final press conference as a Bear.

“What I love about him and what makes him so special is … a lot of one-and-dones, they don’t unpack their bags,” an emotional Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “And I mean, it was really hard for him after the game. And you love it — you love that he cares.”


Walter’s 20-point outing marked his ninth of the season. The 6-foot-5-inch guard finished his true freshman season with 508 points, the second most by a freshman in program history. Walter was one point shy of the record set by Aaron Bruce in 2004-05. Keyonte George, another freshman phenom, finished with 506 points in his lone year (2022-23) with the Bears.

But amid all the buckets Walter scored in what’s likely his only year with Baylor, he said he’s going to remember the bond with his teammates and coaches most.

“Everybody on the team is just like family for real,” Walter said. “It’s just really tough just to know that it’s all over, but I know that our relationships are always going to last.”

Walter will hear his name called in the 2024 NBA Draft this summer, but one thing’s for certain: He’ll always be a Bear.

“It’s home,” Walter said of Baylor.