Hours before each game, Ramon Walker Jr. walks onto the court before the rest of the UH bench unit comes out for pre-game warmups. He starts with some stretching, then begins shooting free throws before stepping back behind the three-point line until his teammates join him.
He’s alone. Save for maybe a student manager to help rebound, he’s putting in work before anyone else. Once the whole team comes out, he splits his time doing drills with both the guards and the big men. He’s the only player that does so.
That’s the type of routine and commitment to his craft Walker, now in his third season at Houston, has built for himself in what was a difficult last year.
“I trust in the work that I put in,” Walker said. “I come in here at night and shoot a thousand shots. Just seeing the ball go in a bunch of times and shooting it with confidence.”
This time last year, Walker was away from the program to “work on Ramon” as head coach Kelvin Sampson put it. Walker had last played in the team’s conference opener against Tulsa on Dec. 28, 2022, and would later be given a medical redshirt and sit out the rest of the season.
It was a far cry from Walker’s position just 10 months prior. As a true freshman in 2021-22, Walker was thrust into a prominent role after season-ending injuries to Marcus Sasser and Tramon left him as the only remaining guard on the bench. Walker played a critical role in the depleted Cougars’ Elite Eight run, playing 27 minutes in the team’s Sweet 16 upset over one-seed Arizona and bringing a much-needed spark with his relentless effort and reliable jump shot.
But the return of Sasser and Mark the next year along with the addition of several freshmen who warranted playing time saw Walker’s role come into question. Also, a hand injury which Walker admittedly came back too quickly from caused him to develop a bad hitch in his shot. As the season began, the sophomore’s minutes began to dwindle along with his state of mind until the mutual decision was made to sit out to focus on his mental health.
“All of a sudden his role changed. And, you know, that changed his life in a lot of ways,” Sampson said. “He had to take care of some off-the-court issues that far, far, far exceeded the importance of athletics or basketball.”
With basketball out of the picture for the time being, Walker found himself without the game he loved and without direction. Before he could begin the process of returning to the court, Walker had to do some soul-searching.
“Just really taking a long look in the mirror. Like, what don’t I like about myself,” Walker said. “And how can I go about just fixing those little flaws that I had, and being a better person.”
With the support of the program along the way, Walker rediscovered his love for basketball and decided that moving forward his focus would solely be on getting back on the court. Walker built a solid routine throughout the spring and summer and his mental health steadily came with it.
“Just building structure, like having a schedule, knowing what I’m going to do day in and day out has really helped me get in the system,” Walker said. “Just engulfing myself in basketball.”
“When you go through that adversity, you find out really quickly, do you like it or love it,” said assistant coach Kellen Sampson. “And I think what Ramon found out about himself is that he loves it. And he made sure that his plan B was making sure plan A worked.”
Once Walker was ready to get back to work and his hand was finally fully healed, the next step, with the help of Kellen, was a long and grueling one: rebuilding his jumper.
The process of pulling the wires back on a shot that once helped Walker win the Guy V. Lewis Award for best high school player in Houston would take a toll on anyone. Countless hours in the gym were spent performing fundamental, seemingly elementary shooting drills over and over, trying to find something consistent and repeatable, encouraged by every make and frustrated with every miss.
“The hardest thing for all these guys to go through is when you struggle at something that your whole life, you’ve been terrific at,” Kellen said. “Once we could grasp kind of why and what happened, and could kind of get him to exhale and not be living and dying with every miss, you can start to put the pieces back together.”
Slowly but surely, Walker’s shot began to improve. Though the issue stemmed from his hand injury, Kellen emphasized to Walker the importance of first building a base with his lower body to create a duplicable, easy shot. And while the confidence began to grow in his stroke, the younger Sampson made sure that Walker understood that his value on the court went beyond just his shooting and that his energizer-bunny-like ability to defend and grab rebounds and loose balls was indispensable.
“Sometimes your focus is so much on what is your perceived weaknesses that you’re not aware of all the strengths,” Kellen said. “He was neglecting all the other things that he’s awesome at.”
Fast forward to now, and Walker’s number has been called again. After fighting for playing time for much of the first month of the season, a season-ending injury to sophomore guard/forward Terrance Arceneaux in mid-December made Walker the next man up, much like in 2021-22. With a year away from the court and plenty of hard lessons behind him, Walker has tried to make the most of his time back.
Walker played important minutes as a de facto power forward in UH’s win over No. 25 Texas Tech, allowing the Cougars to grab an early lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. After a sloppy first eight minutes from both teams, Walker sprinted to the corner on a fastbreak where he received an L.J. Cryer pass and confidently drained a three to cap a decisive 13-0 run. On top of that, Walker made plenty of his usual hustle plays, grabbing three offensive rebounds in a dominant conference home win.
“It was good to see Ramon going and contribute. I could just see his body language and how he felt about himself just skyrocket after the game,” said Kelvin Sampson. “And then he came in (the next day) bouncing on his toes, and that was good to see.”
A few days later against UCF on Jan. 20, Walker played 19 minutes, hit another three, went 4-5 from the foul line and dished out two assists in perhaps his best game of the season so far. As his confidence and role continue to grow as the season wears on, Walker looks back on his challenging year without basketball as an opportunity to reflect on his own growth into where he is.
“I feel like last year, was needed. Because I feel like it was a good time to figure out how to better myself as a basketball player and as a person,” Walker said. “I’m well prepared to be in the position I’m in right now.”