Vanderbilt's disciplined disciple of streetball

Sunday, February 21, 2010 at 11:45pm
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Andre Walker likes to say 'No' to opponents' shots. / Mike Strasinger for The City Paper

Andre Walker gives Vanderbilt its own version of And 1. That is to say, when he’s on the floor the Commodores typically have two guards … and one more.

“Andre’s just like having another guard,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “It’s like a third point guard on the floor. You give him the ball and you don’t worry about it because he’s going to come up and get you in the offense.”

The only thing is that Walker, a third-year sophomore, is a 6-foot-7 power forward who rebounds and occasionally blocks shots the way most bigger men do.

What sets him apart from most at his position, is that ability to handle the ball, a skill he developed in front of the television as much as on the courts and playgrounds of his native Chicago.

Walker is a devotee of And 1 Mix Tapes, the highlight reels of streetball practitioners produced by a shoe company in a revolutionary marketing approach — and available for present-day viewing on YouTube.

For much of the last decade, the contests and exhibitions were wildly popular with a younger generation and almost universally panned by basketball purists for their emphasis on flair and personal freedom over some of the basic rules of the game.

“I wasn’t like really tall growing up,” Walker said. “I used to love And 1 Mix Tapes, so I used to practice all those crazy moves. Then I started to grow a little bit in high school, but my coaches still had confidence in me to handle to the ball. So that’s where it started.”

One of his favorite players was Hot Sauce (a.k.a. Philip Champion), who was known for such moves as The Hypnotizer, The Boomerang, The Hurricane and The Flintstone Shuffle. Later, he paid close attention to Syk Wit It (a.k.a Robin Kennedy).

“I love that stuff,” he said. “I’m actually on Mix Tape Volume 3. In the credits, I’m the little kid with the ’fro… When I saw that, I was like in heaven.”

Team player

One of the primary criticisms of streetball is its emphasis on one-on-one play, which is the exact opposite Walker’s overall approach. In fact, he does many of the things any traditional team needs to do to be successful.

He scored 10 or more points only three times in the Commodores’ first 24 games, which was the same number of games in which he had 10 rebounds. The rest of team combined had just two double-digit rebound performances. He also was one of only three VU players to have had five assists or more in a game, which he did four times.

“He’s a huge part of our team, an integral part of our team,” forward Jeffery Taylor said. “He does things that don’t get seen a lot but it means a lot to the way we play and to the way we win. He passes the ball great. He’s a guy who can bring the ball up the court and get us into the offense. He grabs rebounds, plays defense on some of the best inside players the other teams have.

“He does a lot of things for our team so he’s probably one of our most valuable players.”

He is not among Vanderbilt’s top five in shots attempted despite the fact that he has started virtually every contest, but is among the team leaders in rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots.

His 40 assists through the first 10 games of conference play were the most on the team. And that's despite Walker sitting out the Commodores' Feb. 13 victory over LSU with a shoulder injury.

Prior to the LSU contest, he had eight points, nine rebounds, two blocked shots and an assist against Tennessee as VU completed a sweep of the season series. In the Commodores’ two victories against the Vols and their pressure defense this season Walker had six assists and just five turnovers.

“The more a team presses, the more value Andre brings because of his ball handling and passing ability,” Stallings said. “We felt like with Tennessee … that they probably would take their two points guards and really try to wear Jermaine (Beal) down making him bring the ball up. So we gave it … to Andre a lot.”

Street value

Walker’s moment of Mix Tape immortality came when he attended an And 1 open run in Chicago. The exact year has escaped him, but he estimated — based on his look — that it was sometime around his seventh grade year.

He still lights up at the thought of seeing himself dribbling between his legs and the like for several seconds as the credits scroll upward to his left.

“I just happened to make it on there,” he said. “That was like a dream come true.”

His hairstyle in the clip is in stark contrast to the close crop he wears today. Likewise, the frenetic pace of his youth hardly is an indicator of his style of play now – particularly when he has the ball in his hands.

“He plays at a good pace and he’s calm,” Stallings said. “… He’s just very steady and that’s just kind of part of his makeup. (He’s) just not going to get rattled and get hurried. There’s nothing better for a coach’s comfort than to have guys out on the court like that when somebody’s trying to press you, make you speed up and make you turn the ball over.”

For his part, Walker takes comfort in knowing that his training includes attempts to master many of those unorthodox moves even though he says he only occasionally breaks them out these days, typically in partner drills with fellow power forward Steve Tchiengang.

“It helps with your handle … it definitely helps with your handle,” Walker said. “It just makes you more confident because you can do regular stuff if you can do that kind of stuff.”