By Scott Puryear
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — It’s a cliché, but if they could break down a Most Valuable Player trophy into a dozen or so pieces, that would always be Link Academy basketball coach Bill Armstrong’s preference after his undefeated Lions defeated Sunrise Christian in the Finals at 72 :66 of the 38th annual Bass Pro Tournament of Champions on Saturday night at the Great Southern Bank Arena.
But Armstrong also admits voters were right in naming Link’s 6-foot-5 senior and Baylor-tied shooting guard Ja’Kobe Walter as tournament MVP.
In a tremendously balanced roster, with six players previously signed to Power 5 NCAA Division I programs, and a group of underclassmen ranked in the top 15 in their respective recruiting classes, it’s difficult to make headlines over three nights for To really highlight a team that entered the tournament ranked #2 on the SBLive/Sports Illustrated Power 25 national rankings.
It was never slow – given Link’s flair for pacing up and down the court in a hurry and producing his fair share of highlight reel dunks – but Steady won that MVP race.
“Was that just solid and consistent?” Armstrong posed the rhetorical question to his MVP Walter.
“The way he came out and shot the ball… he’s much more than a goalscorer, however. I think a lot of people see him as the top scorer, but when you watch him play defensively, night after night, every second on the floor, he gives everything he’s got.
“All these guys do it. But he’s a senior, he’s been in a lot of big games, and he came out of the opening tip on Thursday night and just gave us everything he had every night. He is an ambassador for this sport and deserves every award he gets. Hopefully he’ll get a lot more, but he (MVP) deserves that because he tries hard every day.”
Walter had a team-high 17 points and added six rebounds to cap a three-game march by Link to the T of C title in his first appearance at the event near the Lions’ home base in Branson. Walter added 12 points in Friday’s 55-44 semifinal win over Christ the King (Middle Village, NY) and led the Lions by 18 points in Thursday’s 74-52 triumph over Chicago’s St. Rita.
But as well as scoring, it was the shooting efficiency that Walter displayed all weekend that set him apart, in addition to the clutch timing of many of his 3-pointers… and of course the aforementioned steady defensive effort he put out Link every night .
Walter, who averaged 16.3 points for the tournament, hit 19 of 34 field goals (56 percent) over the three nights, including a staggering nine of 13 from 3-point ranges (69 percent).
If you’re a Baylor Bears fan, this must make you a little excited. So is the fact that Walter believes there is a lot more to come from him before he even gets to the Waco campus.
Personal accolades along with tournament team titles at major events reinforce Walter’s decision to join the program as a sophomore at Link after leaving his former high school team following his junior season in McKinney, Texas, where he averaged 23 points and 7th overall last season Rebounds scored McKinney to lead the Class 6A in second place.
Walter had signed to the Lions and former coach Rodney Perry last spring, who started the 2021-22 program and guided Link to a 34-2 record and a national runner-up at the GEICO Championships last April.
But a few weeks later, Perry took a job as an assistant coach at Kansas State, leaving it to the newly hired Armstrong — a longtime former SEC assistant at Ole Miss and most recently LSU — to rebuild the roster and make sure the key guys got their fill like Walter was coming.
“Coach Bill came to my house … I knew he was a great coach and I believed in him and he believed in me,” Walter said. “So I stuck with Link, and it’s probably the best decision I’ve made in my high school career because I believe I’m getting better at training and playing against elite players and other D-1s (recruits). .”
His teammates confirmed that the Walter, who nearly 22,000 fans watched over three nights at the Great Southern Bank Arena on the Missouri State University campus, is the one they see in practice daily and the country will be supporting all winter Seen Link’s various performances.
“I think Ja’Kobe is the best (shooting guard) in the country,” said link junior point guard Elliott Cadeau, the nation’s top-rated player at his position and a verbal confession from North Carolina. “He just did what he does, made those recordings consistently and gave us that spark.”
Teammate Cade Phillips, the 6-9 senior who signed with Tennessee, added, “I think at this point everyone in the country knows what brings Ja’Kobe to the floor. He’s a 5-star consensus, but he doesn’t act like it. He’s acting like he’s got a chip on his shoulder and something to prove, and he’s a baller. That’s the best teammate you could wish for.”
He has also shown himself to be loyal, not only to his teammates but also to those loyal to him.
Baylor was the first program that Walter offered back in June 2021. And though he eventually made visits to Texas, Alabama and Auburn, Walter said Baylor, who jumped out there and believed in him at first, never got out of his head.
“It was Baylor, just like the coaching staff believed in me,” Walter said. “They didn’t recruit anyone hard when they recruited me and they really showed it. And when I made my visit, it felt like home. The way they use their cover on offense and defense felt like I fit in perfectly.
“I don’t know about anyone else, but (Baylor was the first offer) has taken a toll on me because it’s been life-changing for sure. And after that, they didn’t let up… they stayed with me, and that was big on me.”
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