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Megan Walker was great at UConn, but not a UConn great

Looking back on the former No. 1 recruit’s three years with the Huskies.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Megan Walker sent shockwaves through the women’s basketball world on Saturday as the junior declared for the 2020 WNBA Draft, forgoing her final year of eligibility at UConn.

Like Azura Stevens’ decision to leave in 2018 and Morgan Tuck before her in 2016, Walker shouldn’t be criticized for doing something in her own best interest. Players have a finite amount of time in their physical prime to play professionally and she’s expected to be a first round pick that will “be highly sought after,” according to High Post Hoops’ Howard Megdal.

As of Friday, Geno Auriemma said he has “no reason to think anybody that’s able to come back won’t be coming back.” But, he noted the team planned to meet later, so it’s possible he didn’t know.

Now, Walker’s career at UConn is over.

She came to UConn as the No. 1 prospect in the country, part of the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation in 2017 alongside Mikayla Coombs (the No. 16 player in the class), Andra Espinoza-Hunter (No. 19) and Lexi Gordon (No. 29). The other three all eventually transferred out. Now, Walker joins them as an early departure (though under drastically different circumstances), leaving the Huskies without a four-year player from that class.

Despite all the hype coming in, Walker had a quiet freshman season. Though she had a handful of games where she scored in double digits, as well as a six-rebound effort against Notre Dame where she made some critical plays, Walker spent much of the season in Auriemma’s doghouse.

During a 91-47 win at Tulane, Auriemma benched both Walker and Coombs despite holding a large lead.

“One of the problems with our guys on the bench, especially the freshmen, they’re incapable of having three good days in a row, it’s just not possible,” Auriemma said in January of that season. “And until they do, they’re not going to play.”

In the NCAA Tournament, Walker’s impact was negligible after the first round. She played just 31 minutes total over the next three games with just four points total before watching the entirety of UConn’s heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame from the bench.

She finished her freshman season with 5.8 points and 3.3 rebounds in 15.5 minutes per game. While not terrible, it was below what was expected of the top-ranked freshman in the nation.

After the season wrapped up, Walker changed her attitude, her work ethic and her training almost immediately. Though the season ended in early April, signs of her progress were already evident by June.

“We’ve seen a big change in Megan especially, she’s taken on a different personality and that happens,” Auriemma said at his annual Fore The Kids golf tournament. “Sometimes you need something like last year to remind you that it’s not supposed to be easy, this isn’t high school and I think that’s one of the best things that ever happened to her and I would think she’s going to have a great year this year.”

Walker ended up proving her coach right as a sophomore. With Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams gone, Walker stepped up and filled the void as a strong rebounder and complimentary scorer. She reached double-figures in 25 of 36 games and recorded six double-doubles throughout the season.

Once the 2019 NCAA Tournament began, Walker took her game to a new level. In the Elite Eight against Louisville, she made her first four three point attempts and reeled in eight first-half rebounds. She finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds while playing all 40 minutes to help the Huskies reach their 12th straight Final Four.

But after UConn fell to Notre Dame again, Walker entered another offseason faced with challenges. She didn’t need to prove herself anymore but with Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson graduating, she was going to be relied even more as a junior.

Walker’s first step that summer? Self awareness.

“Today she was [calling out a teammate] because she wasn’t going hard enough,” Auriemma said this past June at his golf tournament. “I almost spilled my coffee. She made a comment the other day when she saw someone working, she said ‘That was me two years ago.’ So it shows you how far she’s come. She’s in the best shape she’s ever been in and she’s doing what kids at that level at this point in their college career at UConn are supposed to be doing. Going from here to here [Auriemma moves his hand higher], then from here to here the following year.”

Whereas some players might’ve shriveled under such a bright spotlight with expectations raised to the max, Walker embraced it.

“I wouldn’t say pressure. We’re going to miss them and what they brought to the program but everyone’s excited, it’s our time,” Walker said. “It’s finally on our shoulders.”

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Walker backed up her talk, opening the season with a 21-point, 10 rebound double-double against Cal and went on to score double-figures in all but two games. Start to finish, she was arguably UConn’s best player and earned AAC Player of the Year and the Most Outstanding Player of the conference tournament before the season ended unexpectedly.

“She stopped blaming other factors for her not being what she wanted to be and took matters into her own hands,” Auriemma said prior to the AAC Tournament. “She said, ‘This is what I’ve done my first two years, and this is what I want to accomplish now, so what am I going to do about it? I’m going to get in better shape, take better care of myself, I’m going to practice harder, I’m going to become more of the kind of player that I know I need to be to help our team be successful.”

It wasn’t all perfect though. Walker shot just 13-47 (27.7 percent) and averaged 12.0 points in UConn’s three losses, and had other issues throughout the season. If there’s a reason to question her readiness for the WNBA, those three games against the toughest competition on the schedule can cause some doubts.

Had Walker returned, the Huskies would’ve been the clear national title favorite for next season. Even without her, UConn will still be in the mix, just not head and shoulders above the competition.

There’s a lot to unpack in terms of Walker’s legacy. She had one disappointing season, one good season and one great season. She made no impact in one NCAA Tournament, played a key role in another and never got a chance in the third. People were excited to see what she could accomplish in her fourth season, a timeframe by which most draftees are measured.

Ultimately, Walker never got a chance to measure her career against those of other UConn greats. But she still came to the school as a No. 1 recruit and despite underwhelming early, eventually developed into an elite player with the Huskies.

Individually, there wasn’t much more than Walker could’ve accomplished in Storrs. In the end, Walker exemplified how every player’s path to greatness is unique. Though her’s was rockier and doesn’t have the longevity of other UConn greats, Walker’s 2019-20 campaign still stands as one of the best in program history.