TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – M.J. Walker entered his first year at Florida State looking to learn, grow and develop into one of the Seminoles’ cornerstones of the future.
But if he happened to ever take over and lead his team to a crucial victory on the road, that was fine too.
The future arrived in a big way Saturday afternoon, as Walker, a freshman guard from Jonesboro, Ga., scored a career-high 24 points that sparked FSU to a 91-82 victory at Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum.
It might be FSU’s most important victory of the season, having snapped a mini-skid of three losses in four games and giving the Seminoles some welcome momentum heading into a pivotal stretch of home games against Georgia Tech and Miami.
“We needed this game, and we came in with the mindset to start from the jump,” Walker said. “And that’s what we did.”
While Walker’s teammates did most of the heavy lifting in the first half, it was Walker who ensured that the Seminoles pulled away in the second.
Thanks to his 10 points early in the second period, FSU’s lead ballooned from three points at the break to as much as 14 down the stretch.
Walker shot 8 of 13 from the field, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range, and he also flashed his defensive prowess during a 9-2, second-half run that gave the Seminoles some breathing room.
Walker’s shooting breakthrough was part of an overall return to form for FSU. After connecting on just 38 percent of their shots in their previous three games combined (and 29 percent from 3-point range), the Seminoles broke through for a 58-percent performance on Saturday and drained 9 of 20 from distance.
“Everybody was shooting with confidence,” Walker said. “Even when we missed, we took what we got and continued to play our game.”
Which is all Walker has ever asked for himself this season.
A former five-star prospect who earned prestigious McDonald’s All-America honors as a high school senior, Walker is the latest in a line of blue-chip recruits to play in Tallahassee.
But while comparisons to the likes of Malik Beasley, Dwayne Bacon or Jonathan Isaac might have always been inevitable, Walker said he doesn’t feel any pressure to follow in their footsteps.
Those three all brought a little something different to the floor, and Walker believes that he does, too.
“I knew when I came here this was the best situation for me,” Walker said. “And I know those guys, Jon and Bacon, their games definitely impacted Florida State and those teams.
“But that’s not pressure on me. I can only control what I can control, and that’s to do my job and play as hard as I can every night and deal with the results and continue to get better.”
Walker’s results on Saturday were more than enough for the Seminoles, and they might also be a sign that he is emerging from a midseason lull in which he’d scored no more than seven points in his last five games.
That would be welcome news for FSU as it looks to separate itself from the middle of the pack in the ACC standings.
“The pace is different,” Walker said, when asked about his transition to college basketball. “It’s fast. There are a lot of details in practice, defensively and offensively, that we have to focus on. There’s lot of things we have to study on our own.”
It’s no surprise for a freshman to take a little time to gain his footing in the ACC, but Walker said he pushed through by trying to be a good teammate and believing that, if he followed his coaching, success would come.
On Saturday, his patience was rewarded.
“I try my best to keep my teammates in good position so we can win,” Walker said. “I just know to stay humble and trust the process, and just continue to do me and keep playing to win.”