A compliment offered to AJ Walker by his trainer could have been dismissed as a banaluntil you understand the full extent of the meaning.
“He’s very stable,” Air Force coach Joe Scott said of the senior starter and four-year-old who will play his final home game Tuesday night. “It’s pretty much the same guy every day.”
First and foremost, Scott’s primary goal in player development is to help players understand who they can be and become that person every day, every game. For him to observe that Walker, who is tied for seventh all-time in program history, carries extra weight.
But overall, Walker’s stability in the face of what he’s endured in his career is perhaps the best compliment he can receive.
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This is a player who underwent a coaching change after his second season the same week COVID-19 began shutting down the United States. He entered the transfer portal but ultimately opted to stay. Then came a junior season truncated by the virus and filled with struggles for a Falcons team decimated by graduation and adjusting to a new style. As a senior, Walker switched point guard to accommodate a wave of rookies as the program plunged headlong into a full-fledged rebuild – always a difficult position for a senior. On top of all that, he had to run out of time this season due to the virus and its protocols. It was the only game he had missed in four years.
Matching his demeanor on the floor, Walker handled it without letting talk of what he might have endured inside.
“I take it all with a grain of salt,” the San Antonio native said. “The way I see it is that a situation is going to be what it is, and if you dwell on it or get upset about it, it’s not going to change the fact of what it is. I try to do things that I can control, but it’s all about perspective at the end of the day. I see it as if every day I can do what I love, be around people I love to be around and talk to my family.
“That’s what keeps me going and the outside stuff doesn’t really affect me.”
As a player, Walker will leave a legacy as an impact scorer. His 331 points scored in 2020-21 are the most for an Air Force player in a Mountain West season, as is his 46 3-pointers. At 1,385 career points (currently tied for seventh on the school roster with Jamaica Reese), he will finish behind only Raymond Dudley, Otis Jones, Tim Harris, Lavelle Scottie, Michael Lyons and Bob Beckel.
He had a run earlier this season where he scored 27, 22, 27, 19, 23 and 18 points in six games. He scored 33 against Fresno State last year and averaged 18.3 points in his last three games at the Mountain West Tournament.
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This year he’s added inside play to his arsenal, taking players tasked with chasing him around the perimeter in the paint and scoring with post moves.
“He developed that,” Scott said. “To his credit, he knows ‘I have an edge.’ That was a big help, and (first-year guards) Jake Heidbreder and Ethan Taylor, with their size, they got to watch AJ take guys out there and be productive on the job.
And perhaps that will become his legacy as a member of the Air Force program – a mentor whose example will continue to help the program after he leaves.
Walker sees some of his same behavior in Taylor, whose insertion into the point guard role prompted Scott to move Walker to an off-guard position.
“I try to help him in any way I can,” Walker said.
Beyond Tuesday’s 7 p.m. regular-season finale against San Jose State and next week’s Mountain West tournament, Walker isn’t sure there will be basketball in his future. . He’s hopeful, but that would probably be a long shot.
That’s part of why he opted to stay two years ago after foraying into the transfer portal, despite several “pretty big offers,” which reportedly included Texas Tech, TCU and Georgia. Walker had come to the Air Force to “get the best education” and settle for guaranteed employment. Ultimately, he returned to that goal after considering other options and says he “has no regrets.”
He will graduate in May, then report to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio as an acquisitions officer.
If the end of his basketball career comes next week in Las Vegas, he’ll still have ties to the game. He’ll be watching this Air Force team playing four freshmen and one sophomore among its rotation typical of eight men.
But do you want to see this almost equal future officer light up? Emphasize his visibly close-knit family.
Walker’s father, Anthony, rarely misses an Air Force game despite the long drive from San Antonio. Walker said the support of his parents, including his mother Vali, was invaluable as he spent his time at the academy.
And what he looks forward to most after graduation is watching his sister, Alysa, play volleyball. She will be a junior next year, and AJ is looking forward to being able to follow her more closely.
“That’s going to be my focus here,” he said, clearly ready to direct his steady, steady energy in that direction. “Be his biggest supporter.”