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Celtics' Walker has feet on ground

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / October 10, 2008
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WALTHAM - The highlights made it look simple.

They made it look like there wasn't a turnover in the Celtics' end of the court, then a missed dunk in the 76ers' end, and that the half-court lob from Gabe Pruitt just happened to find Bill Walker way above the rim.

They made it seem as if the well-traveled Theo Ratliff hadn't blocked Walker's layup the first time, and he was just loitering around the rim, waiting on Walker for his YouTube close-up.

They made it seem like the way Walker took off from the baseline was the way you were supposed to jump after multiple knee surgeries.

Which is why Walker didn't bother staying up to watch the highlights. They only show part of the truth.

Yes, he can jump. But he's more concerned with defending, playing hard whether it's against All-Stars or bench-warmers, and learning the plays coach Doc Rivers seems to install 12 at a time.

Walker played 11 minutes in Wednesday's 98-92 loss in the Celtics' exhibition opener, then he got on the team bus, went home, and put on a movie ("The Assassination of Jesse James").

The text messages poured in partly because of the late "SportsCenter," and partly because he had just rung in his 21st birthday by dunking on a player who once led the NBA in blocked shots.

It's not like he hadn't seen what everyone was talking about. At halftime, Walker and a bunch of teammates crowded around a TV at the Mullins Center in Amherst to see him take a feed from fellow rookie J.R. Giddens, and dunk on Ratliff with his right hand.

"I dunked the ball," Walker said. "I'm a dunker. I've always done that. That doesn't stick out to me."

Rivers has been here before. He watched as Ricky Davis tried to balance athleticism and discipline. He waited patiently as Gerald Green's youth battled his talent. The same could be said for Tony Allen and his bad luck. They could all jump.

"We can't get caught in that," Rivers said yesterday. "We've had a lot of athletes here where people have gotten excited about when they're young. But you've got to learn how to play the game. That's what I like about him."

He likes Walker because he competes.

"Young guys think they competed in college," Rivers said. "But they come up here and they found out it's a whole different level of competition - not only as far as talent, but as far as inner competition.

"Billy has that level now. He's not going to back down to anybody. He's going to go out there and he's going to compete against everybody. That gives him a chance to be a very good player."

He likes Walker because he's been through adversity.

He's had torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees and three surgeries, all in a five-year span. The last surgery scared teams enough to drop the Kansas State star's draft stock from a mid-first-rounder to the second round (No. 47 overall), where Washington selected him. And the Wizards then traded him on the same night for cash considerations.

Since joining the Celtics, Walker has been working with strength and conditioning coach Bryan Doo on landing properly after jumps and eliminating negative movement.

"He's killing me," Walker said, "but I know I needed it."

Walker said he feels as explosive as he did two years ago, before the last two operations, which made one Eastern Conference general manager say, "If he can jump any higher now, then he can touch the top of the backboard."

"For the most part, most guys come in the league and it's been euphoria," Rivers said. "Everything's been perfect . . . They never had to go through anything tough. I think it's good for them. So when things get tough, they know they can get through them."

But why Rivers truly likes Walker is because he wants to learn.

However, it doesn't come all at once. Especially on days like yesterday, when Rivers introduced a new play and Walker messed it up twice.

It doesn't come easy, either. Especially when he has to run through the play with the green team, all the starters and Walker.

"The green team was running it flawlessly," Rivers said. "He was on the green team and he messed it up twice, and they got mad at him."

It definitely comes fast.

"In college, you run the plays over and over and over," Walker said. "Up here, they give you a set, show you two options, and you play off that. It's a million plays that you have to learn on the fly."

But at some point, it comes together.

"I just told him, 'You'll learn,' " Rivers said.

A story has spread about a practice this summer in which one of the assistant coaches stood at the charge line and Walker hopped over him for a dunk. After seeing him jump, Pruitt said Walker could possibly do for the Celtics what Gerald Green and Dee Brown did - bring home a dunk title. But if he did, it would be different, Pruitt said, "especially with [three] knee surgeries."

But Walker isn't thinking about that.

"I'm just trying to get on this team and contribute right now," he said.

But as he ducked into the back of the workout facility, he confessed, "I might look at [the highlight] again."

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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