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October 20, 2014

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

ray brewer:

Dantley Walker worth the wait for UNLV basketball

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV’s Daquan Cook and Dantley Walker share a light moment during the Adams State game Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Dantley Walker high school highlights

UNLV vs. Adams State: Exhibition

UNLV guard Kendall Smith drives to the basket against Adams State during the Rebels second exhibition game Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Launch slideshow »

When Dantley Walker entered the UNLV basketball team’s Tuesday exhibition game, fans at the Thomas & Mack Center perked up, cheering for the 5-foot-11 freshman guard from small-town Panaca.

He easily received the loudest reception, proving he has quickly become one of the Rebels’ more popular players. Even though he played just a handful of seconds at the end of the first half and likely will redshirt this year, you won’t hear this happy-go-lucky guy complain.

Not many from Lincoln County High — a Division III classification school whose team regularly takes four-hour bus rides for league games — or players from the state’s other rural schools advance to play college basketball. Rarer still do they play for their favorite teams.

Fans weren’t the only ones excited for Walker’s appearance. Each time he steps onto the court, attends a team function or even runs sprints in practice, Walker's ear-to-ear grin is evident.

“Every time we run out (on the red carpet during pregame), it is like a dream come true,” he said. “When the fireworks go off, it gives me chills. Those fans are great ... they are so welcoming.”

Many Las Vegans became passionate about the Rebels because of their Final Four teams or the program’s storied players from yesteryear. Walker’s love came from a different era. He was bitten by the scarlet and gray bug during UNLV’s Sweet 16 run in 2007, watching guards such as Kevin Kruger and Wink Adams lead them to the second weekend of the tournament for the first time since those glory years.

Walker hopes to one day be part of UNLV’s next great tournament run. But he’s realistic. After taking two years off to serve a Mormon mission to the Pacific Northwest, he’s still rusty.

It’s not fair to judge his on-court contributions until he gets reacquainted with the game. While on his mission, which ended in the summer, he played once weekly against his companions, only a few of whom were athletic.

It must have felt like he was back in high school.

Walker is a Nevada legend from his days at Lincoln County, setting the state’s scoring record (3,304 points) and thriving as the main attraction. Word quickly spread through the state of his shooting prowess — he is money from the outside — meaning each time his team bused in from Panaca for a game, fans would pack the gym to see the undersized guard show his stuff. He’s currently 165 pounds, up 10 from his senior year weight.

Three years ago when I heard about Walker's dominating performances, like many, I was skeptical. He was basically playing a recreation-league schedule against seasonal players. And he was from Panaca, a town of fewer than 1,000 residents.

Then I attended a game. Walker scored more than 50 points that night, frequently facing triple coverage. Some of his 3-point shots were from closer to midcourt than the 3-point arc.

During his senior year, he led the nation in points (1,067), 3-pointers (148) and free-throw percentage (.900). He had a 73-point game, believed to be the nation’s highest-scoring game in the 2010-11 season, and scored more than 60 points six times.

But don't expect that kind of scoring to continue with the Rebels. Walker, like any freshman, needs time to develop. He’s not going to be Anderson Hunt or Freddie Banks, but he could wind up being a serviceable player. Not this year, but in years to come.

When then-UNLV coach Lon Kruger offered him a scholarship based on the shooting and offensive capability that fans packed tiny gyms to witness, I was one of the first to praise the move. Sure, Walker would be a risk and a work in progress. But the sky's the limit on his potential.

Dave Rice, who scouted Walker while as an assistant at BYU before becoming the Rebels’ coach, reached out to Walker days after taking the UNLV job three years ago. Walker had started his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission to Washington, Montana and Idaho, and was thrilled to know he was still part of UNLV’s plans.

Walker brings more to the team than what you see on the court.

He’s mature and hard-working. He’s a team player and the first to jump off the bench when a timeout is called to greet teammates. He’s a glue guy — programs need reserves with special skill sets, not 15 players who think they should play 30 minutes per game.

“It helped me to be a lot more unselfish,” he said of the mission. “I had two years to focus on other people and put my worries to the back. It gave me that unselfishness to where I can help this team in whatever they need.”

And he does everything with a smile. He truly appreciates being part of UNLV basketball.

“I got to meet coach Tark. I get to play at the Thomas & Mack,” he said. “I just can’t help but smile.”

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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