To watch the entire video interview, which includes Coach Hamilton, M.J. Walker, RaiQuan Gray, and Adrian Crawford, click here
It takes a little over four hours of non-stop driving to get from Riverdale, Ga., to Tallahassee. In 2017 the Georgia 6A Basketball Player of the year M. J. Walker made the trip at the invitation of Seminole Basketball. It was a football weekend. The Noles were playing Clemson.
Walker, a quarterback/defensive back at Jonesboro High, was also being courted by the Seminole football team as well as by other ACC and SEC schools. The McDonald’s All-American chose to play basketball at Florida State over offers from Georgia Tech, Ohio State, UCLA, Va. Tech and NC State.
Walker remembers: “After the game I was hanging with the basketball players and just liked the environment. That was the biggest thing. I liked the coaching staff. Florida State is one of the top 20 schools in the country so I could get the best education while playing at the same time.”
It was pretty much a slam dunk that basketball would win out for M. J. Walker. The basketball DNA was strong in the Walker family. His mother, Jackie, won the Division II national championship at Hampton, with a 33-1 record in 1988. His father, James, played at Norfolk State, where he enjoyed a 101-22 record while twice reaching the Elite Eight.
Four years later, in this pandemic-plagued environment, Walker is being counted on to take over a leadership role on a team that lost three of the top four scorers from the ACC Championship squad. He averaged 10.6 points per game in 26 games before coronavirus halted the college basketball season.
Walker has been preparing all along for his new role and feels ready now as a senior.
“I looked at guys like Trent Forrest, Phil Cofer and others and watched them as leaders. That helped me become the player I am today,” said Walker. “I just picked their brain while being shown how to lead. They did it really well.”
Coach Hamilton is confident that Walker will fill the role: “I think if you go back in his career you might see a lot of games where we were struggling, may have been down at the half, even as a freshman he always made big shots. He has that level of confidence that when the game is on the line, he has the ability to rise up and come through.”
Junior guard Wyatt Wilkes comes from a basketball family. His father has coached women’s basketball at Rollins for 34 years and his grandfather is Glenn Wilkes, the Hall of Fame long-time coach at Stetson. Wilkes has no doubts about Walker filling the leadership role:
“As a teammate he just wants to win so bad,” Wilkes said. “He is so for the team it is hard not to love the guy. He puts out the max every day. He is always picking everybody up, especially the young guys.”
M. J. leaves little doubt where he sees the best example of how to lead every day. It starts at the top: “Coach Hamilton is like no other person. He is always looking out for the other person, never for himself. He is always looking for how we can make the program better and how his players can have the best life after basketball. He is a great person that I look up to and want to be like one day.”
While serving as team captain in his junior season (2020), Walker helped lead the team to a 26-5 record and the ACC regular season title. With the talent on that team, including first-round NBA picks Patrick Williams and Devin Vassell, many felt that team was poised to make a national championship run.
Having lost four players might cause some to question if the Seminoles can pick up in the 2020-21 season where they left off. Senior Nathanael Jack, a pure-shooting guard from Canada who took a circuitous route to Tallahassee, has little doubt they will be just as strong and maybe better.
“No doubt in my mind that we can be even better than we were last year,” Jack said. “We have been saying that and a lot of people look at us like we are crazy. But since we lost those players a lot of other players, like myself, who didn’t get to play a lot have gotten a lot better in the system. It has definitely shown up in practice.”
One thing Jack is sure about is that M. J. Walker will set the example: “I love M. J. One of the things you notice about M.J. right off the bat is that he doesn’t do this to make friends or to build friendships. He is very serious about what he does. He is serious about training and getting better. He is not afraid to call anybody out. He will stand for the betterment of the team. At the end of the day everybody respects him for that.”
One of the main reasons Hamilton-coached teams continue to excel is the emphasis he places on defense. “We have a symbol we label ‘Stopper,’ says Hamilton. It is the picture of a mean Junkyard Dog. He keeps people out of his territory. So we take that approach with our Junkyard Defense.”
Then Hamilton outlined how M. J. Walker perfectly represents that likeness: “M. J. has that hard-nosed, tough Junkyard Dog Mentality. He’ll bite you if you come into his territory. When he speaks they listen. He knows our system.”
In 2020 while the Seminoles were recording an impressive 26-5 record, Walker showed how valuable he was on both ends of the court grabbing 44 rebounds while making 20 steals and blocking six shots. He also added 38 assists and averaged 25 minutes of playing time per game. His 10.6 points per game was third best and he knocked down 44 three-pointers (tied for the team lead).
RaiQuan Gray, a redshirt junior from Fort Lauderdale, has played his way into a starting role and will be counted on for team leadership as well. He has seen M.J.’s improvement each year and knows he will play an important role this season.
“We will rely on M.J. a lot as far as the offensive and defensive ends are concerned,” Gray said. “Him being a competitor will set an example. He plays hard every possession. He gives his all and brings that to the court.”
While looking ahead to his final season with great anticipation, Walker paused to reflect on the whole picture from high school stardom to his important role as a senior leader on the team. He expressed his appreciation for the main thing that made it all possible.
“The scholarship is one thing that I never take for granted,” Walker said. “The Boosters give so much to the program, but not only that, I know they care about us after basketball. The scholarship means a lot to me. It is something that I will always appreciate and thank them for. They go out of their way to help us and they don’t have to do that. I definitely appreciate everything they have done for this program.”
While Walker is an NBA prospect he is also thinking ahead as to how he can continue to make an impact with his life.
“I want to work with kids and teach them how to play the game like I learned how,” Walker said. “Also teach them about life situations like paying taxes, creating bank accounts and small things growing up that are not talked about in school sometimes.”
Asked how he would like to be remembered at Florida State when his playing days are over M.J. replied: “As a person who always gave A-plus effort. Always gave the most and made sure he didn’t take any plays off. A tough guy who didn’t let circumstance hold him down. One who was resilient and able to overcome any problem he was facing. And a caring guy.”
When the ball goes up for the opening tipoff each night keep your eyes on M. J. Walker. He will be the one giving it everything he has on every possession.