When Tyson Walker arrived on the campus of Michigan State University in mid-May, he’d never been to East Lansing before. He hadn’t even seen the place that he will call home for the foreseeable future, maybe even for three years if some professional basketball league isn’t calling beforehand. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced that into becoming a more common practice for recruits and transfers, things like that — a highly-touted transfer player just committing to a major college basketball program without ever setting foot on campus — don’t just happen at every school. It is the result of almost three decades under some guy named Tom Izzo. Years of building a powerhouse, of giving people an idea of what they can expect year-in and year-out, plus a reputation as one of the premier point guard schools in the country, leaves an impression with young playmakers. Just ask Tyson Walker.
Walker says it only took one phone call by his new coach until he was hooked. It was over then and there, despite interest from other major universities like Kansas, Texas or Maryland. That quick trigger in terms of his transfer decision brought along some issues for the former Northeastern star. When he arrived in East Lansing he found out that the campus wasn’t just a lot nicer than he had expected, but also a lot bigger, and fleet of foot Walker quickly realized that he could have problems getting from A to B in time. So he bought himself a scooter. Problem solved. Even if it wasn’t really a problem to begin with. “I basically only know the way to gym,” Walker stated three weeks into his MSU career.
Game at Chapel Hill elevates Tyson Walker
The basketball court and what he can do on it is certainly the centerpiece for his decision, and it has been a focal point all his life. The Westbury, New York native honed his craft on the Mecca’s rugged concrete and played for powerhouse Christ the King High School in Queens. After a year at the New Hampton School, a private boarding institution in New Hampshire, Walker moved on to Northeastern University in Boston. He almost immediately became a starter and showed that he was more than ready to compete in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA).
Even if he had a strong freshman year with 10.4 points per game and further ascended as a sophomore, Walker never lost the perspective on where he was playing. Even though coaching legends like Jim Boeheim or Bob Huggins focused their entire defensive schemes to stop him in out of conference bouts and heaped loads of praise on the smallish playmaker afterward, Walker still felt that he wasn’t on par with the big time.
That all changed one faithful night in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Facing the North Carolina Tar Heels, Walker exploded for 27 points on just 15 shots and was the lone reason that the Huskies were at least somewhat competitive in the contest. He actually had 21 points in the first half alone until head coach Roy Williams decided to trap him whenever he passed mid-court. Even though last season’s UNC team wasn’t a juggernaut like squads from past years, Walker’s performance was still a tremendous statement by the young player. That statement wasn’t just part of a dominant six-game stretch to finish the season, during which Walker averaged 25.1 points per game. It was also a statement most loudly heard by himself.
“I felt like I was the best person on the court that day,” Walker said, via The Athletic, and noted that this game made him think about transferring to begin with. Even if he had good games against major competition before — like 19 points and six assists in a road game against Georgia or the aforementioned contest at Syracuse, which was cut short by an injury — his play versus the Tar Heels made him realize that he had more inside of himself. It started a development — physically and mentally — that ultimately landed him in East Lansing. This change in confidence has him now setting his sights on becoming the next great Michigan State point guard.
Walker tries to model his game after some current NBA greats like Damian Lillard or Trae Young, who according to the 175-pound Walker “doesn’t weight more than me.” Yet, it was also another name that Walker watched regularly in recent years, one who was among the greatest to ever don the green and white uniforms for the Spartans. Walker loved to follow Cassius Winston and see how Tom Izzo let him run his offense. Considering the newest Spartan is about the same height as Winston, who is now playing in the NBA for the Washington Wizards, it doesn’t come as a surprise that he does not consider his smallish frame an obstacle. “The Big Ten will be more physical, but that is a given moving up a level,” a confident Walker says. “It shouldn’t be too much trouble, though, since I’m a little older already and know what to expect.”
Tyson Walker brings natural point guard skills to the Spartans
The quiet confidence isn’t the only thing that makes Walker a natural at the point guard position. He plays the game at his own pace, is great at finding the right angles in the pick and roll, plus he is more than athletic and quick enough to finish inside the lane. Many opponents have described him as a gritty player and a tough, relentless competitor. His handle is strong like it seems to be with all New York point guards and he has a knack for changing the pace of play to his or his teammates‘ advantage. Hesitation and patience are just as much part of Walker’s game as is his explosiveness driving by defenders.
All these traits alone would have intrigued his new head coach already. But while scouting Walker, Tom Izzo also must have loved the other side of the ball where Walker is hitting one or two classes above his weight. Last season, he was the CAA Defensive Player Of The Year, while only 11 players in college basketball averaged more steals than him, and his defensive mindset set the tone for his entire team. As mandatory as playing defense is in East Lansing, it will surely endear the transfer guard not only to his coaches, but also to his teammates. His new teammates will make a big difference for Walker’s game in general, according to the 21-year-old. He knows quite well that he most likely won’t see as many scoring opportunities in the Big Ten as he did in the past, but he also will find a lot more talented recipients for his passes while playing for MSU.
Even if no first year player was ever handed the starting point guard duties from game one under Tom Izzo, Walker surely walks into a situation where he might find his name among the first five players out on the court. Neither sophomore point guard A.J. Hoggard, who has worked tirelessly on his body this offseason, nor freshman Jaden Akins, even come close to the college basketball experience Walker possesses. However, both of them also seem to be big or long enough to play alongside Walker in a two-point guard lineup, which Izzo tends to like quite a bit.
Sure, growing pains will come, they usually always come when a player takes a big step up in competition. Yet for Tyson Walker, a lot of signs point to him being ready for whatever challenge his new basketball home might present himself.
Even if they won’t be easily solved by buying a scooter.