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UCLA women pin hopes on true freshman

Markel Walker will make the first of what Coach Nikki Caldwell hopes will be numerous NCAA tournament appearances Sunday night.

March 21, 2010|By Baxter Holmes

A lot is hanging on Markel Walker’s 19-year-old shoulders. Only the UCLA jersey is evident, flashing her No. 23, digits she chose because “only the best” wear them.

There are other layers riding those true freshman shoulders; heavy ones coated in expectation, tailored by Coach Nikki Caldwell, who expects Walker to be the concrete upon which title teams are built, upon which NCAA tournament trips are as certain as sunrise.

Walker’s first appearance in such trips comes Sunday night. Her eight-seeded Bruins face nine-seed North Carolina State in Minneapolis in the first round of Kansas City Region. If UCLA wins, the likely opponent is top-seed Nebraska on Tuesday.

And if UCLA wins, No. 23 will be why. The numbers don’t immediately show it: Walker is second on the team in scoring (10.8) and rebounding (7.4) to sophomore Jasmine Dixon, a transfer from Rutgers.

But Walker’s strength is forcing mismatches because she is unusually mobile and adept at ball-handling for her size, and at 6-feet-1-inches, a size fit for most post players in the women’s game, she can play all five positions on the court – and play them well.

“She can get the ball off the rim and take it down the court and out-foot-speed any other post, because her foot speed is better than any other post, so she can just get to the basket and score,” Dixon said.

Walker developed that style at a young age. At eight years old, she only played against boys and her uncle only allowed her to play the guard position. “He made me basically bring the ball up, be on the wing,” she said.

Her growth spurt came when she was about 11, but even in high school, the position she played depended on what mismatch she could create. “If I had a little guard on me, they used to post me up,” she said. “But if I had a big guard on me, they just let me go out and be a guard.” Caldwell uses her the same way, and as history has shown with former college stars Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker, a mismatch maker like Walker is a considerable nitrous boost to any college squad.

“In women’s basketball, when you might not necessarily have five scorers on the floor at the same time, to have a player who, no matter where you put them, they’re going to score – that’s huge,” ESPN women’s basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo said.

“She wins ball games for us,” Caldwell said. But Caldwell considers Walker’s versatility to extend well beyond hardwood.

There’s the recruiting angle, largely. Walker was a McDonald’s All-American from Philadelphia, rated as high as No. 4 on ESPNU’s list of the top 100 players nationally, a player who averaged 25.6 points, 14.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists her senior year at Schenley High School in Pittsburgh, Penn.

Normally, those credentials mean off-limits for a still-developing program such as UCLA, which is two years into hiring Caldwell from an assistant coaching post at Tennessee. But signing Walker allows Caldwell to encourage other top-notch talent to come to Westwood because they can play alongside her and they can learn to play multiple positions like her.

It’s also big because Walker is 3,000 miles from home.

“For us getting Markel, she will open up the doors for other East Coast kids to see how they can be successful out here in the West Coast,” Caldwell said.

Walker knows that and said she left the East because she liked the bond with Caldwell. “I felt I needed that relationship type because I’m really close with my family and being away from home for a long period of time, I thought that would be affecting me,” she said.

Caldwell is personable with her players. “I try to stay in their world,” she said. “I’m going to movies, I’m going bowling, I’ve been to Chuck E. Cheese’s on recruiting visits with the kids and their families, I try to stay up to date with the music their listening to.” (Said Walker, laughing: “Her iPod is up to date.”) For all her star player does and all Caldwell expects her to do for the program, Walker said she doesn’t feel any extra pressure. “She just asked me to be a player,” she said. On Sunday, Walker will be the focus for a young team that has no players who have NCAA tournament experience and for Caldwell, as it will be her first tournament game as a head coach.

There’s a lot hanging on her shoulders. Only the jersey is evident.

Baxter.holmes@latimes.com

Walker’s birthday: Nov. 7, 1990.

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