DECATUR, Ill. (BVM) — R.J. Walker has always been around the game of basketball, and it has led him to a special career on the hardwood. Entering his final year at Decatur Eisenhower High School, Walker hopes to just be able to play for his school one last time this winter. But whether he gets to or not, Walker ensured his basketball career will not end after high school with his recent commitment to the University of Idaho.
Essentially being around the sport his entire life, Walker first began playing basketball at age 3.
“Ever since I came out of the womb, I’ve basically had a basketball in my hands,” Walker said. “Before I was even walking, I was going to the gym with my dad. I’ve always naturally been around it and it wasn’t hard for me to fall in love with.”
The main reason Walker was introduced to the sport so early was indeed because of his dad, Rodney. Growing up, Rodney also played high school basketball at Decatur Eisenhower, but later transferred to St. Teresa High School, where he scored over 1,500 points in just two years.
After high school, Rodney began his college basketball career by playing for a junior college. However, he would finish playing collegiately for a Division I program in New Mexico State University.
But Rodney’s contributions to the game of basketball did not stop there. When R.J. was young, Rodney helped open up the SkyWalker International Sports Complex in Decatur, Ill. This allowed his son to have a constant place to practice while also competing against some elite players.
Rodney is also the current coach of Eisenhower’s boys basketball team, allowing him to coach his son for the past three years. It can always be tough to find a balance between the father-son relationship on and off the court, but R.J. is appreciative of his dad’s tutelage.
“My dad has been working me out since day one,” R.J. said. “Having him as my coach has a bunch of pros and cons to it. If I have a bad game or we lose, it can get kind of awkward at the dinner table, but I’m used to it. I know he’ll always be my No. 1 fan.”
In return, the 6-foot-2 guard is also his father’s top fan. He has looked up to him his whole life on and off the court, and is proud to be following in his footsteps with his success on the hardwood.
“My biggest role model is my dad,” R.J. said. “He’s been there for me from the start and is never going to lead me the wrong way.”
Former Georgetown College basketball player and Decatur native, Monty Wilson, is also a good friend and mentor that R.J. looks up to. When looking at the pro ranks, R.J. often tries to model his game after Phoenix Suns’ star, Devin Booker.
Like Booker, R.J. believes the best part of his game is his shooting and scoring ability. Throughout the last couple of years, R.J. has also worked on getting bigger and stronger in order to take his game to the next level.
Growing up, the Decatur Eisenhower senior’s talent on the court was recognized right away. R.J. played with several AAU teams throughout his youth, including Team Manimal and Mac Irvin Fire to name a few. By middle school, R.J. showed he had a chance to be a top prospect in the state after he led his eighth grade school team to an undefeated 24-0 record, and a state championship victory.
Part of the reason R.J. was able to develop his skills so quickly was thanks to being able to practice day in and day out at the SkyWalker International Sports Complex. He credits it for not only helping him during his youth, but also during recent times when other gyms were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been beneficial for me because I know there’s kids who want to be in the gym as much as me but don’t have the access like I do,” R.J. explained. “Even during quarantine, it was a blessing in disguise for me because I was still able to get in the gym and work on my craft.”
R.J. entered into his high school basketball career with high expectations. As a freshman, R.J. showed his scoring prowess immediately, setting a conference record with seven three-point makes in a game against the No. 2-ranked team in the state.
By last season, R.J. had his team in position to be the best squad in its conference. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury that led the Panthers to a string of losses, and they would never recover. However, R.J. still put together a productive season, averaging over 16 points per game while shooting over 35% from beyond the arc.
“After I got hurt, we lost six games in a row,” R.J. said. “But if I would’ve never gotten hurt, we would’ve had a good chance at making a run at state and it could have been a pretty historic season for us. What I loved most about our team is that we were scrappy. We had a lot of chemistry together and overall it was a fun year.”
After coming back from injury, R.J. officially became a 1,000 point scorer for the Panthers as well. Between that moment, and being named Macon County Player of the Year after the season, it was an overall successful junior campaign for the 6-foot-2 point guard.
“It was a big accomplishment for me,” R.J. said about scoring 1,000 points. “I knew when I came back [from injury] I had to go all out. Winning Macon County Player of the Year also meant a lot to me because that’s one of the accomplishments my dad got when he was playing. It made history in our city because we were the first father-son duo to do that. I really wasn’t trying to get it at the beginning of the year but as time went on, people started realizing I was that guy.”
As we make our way later into the fall, it is still to be determined if the winter high school basketball season will go on as scheduled in the state of Illinois. R.J. is hoping to get one more chance to play with his Panthers’ teammates, and believes his team has a legitimate chance at a deep postseason run if they do play.
“I really hope I have a senior season,” R.J. said. “Me and my teammates have been working really hard everyday this summer in the gym and we just want to show everybody that our hard work has paid off. Your senior season is supposed to be the best season of your high school career. That’s what everybody works for and it would be a bittersweet year to play for my dad one last time.”
If the season is not played, R.J. is confident he can stay in elite basketball shape at SkyWalker. And if the season does commence, the point guard will aim to become the program’s all-time leading scorer — something he can accomplish by averaging around 20 points per game.
But no matter what happens this winter, R.J. has more high-level basketball on his horizon. Throughout the past year or so, R.J. had been receiving a lot of college interest from local Illinois schools. However, there was something special when the University of Idaho came calling.
I have no clue what the future holds for me, but what I do know is that I’ve decided to verbally commit to the university of Idaho ✊🏽🖤@VandalHoops @KennyTripp @novsek @RodneySKYWalker pic.twitter.com/LIzIK0U8Td
— RJ Walker (@_rj1k_) September 19, 2020
“Nobody was showing interest in me like Idaho,” R.J. said. “Idaho really wanted me and they didn’t want me to change my game. The other schools told my dad they would come see me during the season, but we just felt like that meant I wasn’t their first option, so why not go to Idaho where they want me now. I felt like that’d be the best decision.”
R.J. is thrilled with his decision, and is honored to have the opportunity to become a DI athlete from Decatur. Although the recruiting process this year has been different — actually preventing R.J. from going to visit Idaho’s campus — he is still happy to receive an offer in a time where some athletes are having trouble doing the same.
While playing for the Vandals, R.J. hopes he and his class can help turn the program around and become one of the top teams in the Big Sky conference. Once he’s finished up at Idaho, R.J. hopes to play professional basketball in some capacity, whether that is in the NBA or overseas.
Ultimately, his recent college commitment has again pitted R.J. in his father’s footsteps. While it is a relief for him to be able to accomplish the same things as Rodney, R.J. knows it is time for him to continue making his own name for himself, and is happy he could start doing so with his recent college commitment.
“It’s important for me to make my own name for myself,” R.J. said. “Ever since I’ve been playing basketball I feel like people have put the pressure on me to be as good as my dad. But as time has gone on I started developing my own skills and being a different player from him. Being able to go DI lifted a weight off my back because people realized, I’m me, not him. It was cool to be able to do that.”