Ethan Walker Waterdogs
Photo courtesy of Nick Ieradi.

Film Review: Explaining Ethan Walker’s Underrated Off-Ball Efficiency

By Wyatt Miller

Jul 28, 2023

Ethan Walker silently manipulates the defense on every possession. He moves around the field and picks at the weak spots with meticulous movements and passes. So, while Michael Sowers and Kieran McArdle can overwhelm the league’s top defenders physically, Walker does it mentally. 

He rarely dodges and is still on pace to set career-highs in almost every stat while shooting with the highest efficiency on the team. And after Ryan Brown’s retirement, Walker’s production has soared with nearly five extra touches per game.

Midway through the season, Walker ranks eighth in the league in shot percentage (min. 10 shots), sixth in assisted goals, 11th in expected shot percentage and ninth in passes. Scoring primarily from the wings, all 19 of Walker’s shots have been assisted and his point and/or goal total has increased in every game this season. 

“He just has a really simple game,” said head coach Andy Copelan. “He knows who he is. He doesn’t try to play outside of himself… I feel like Ethan is the right compliment [for Sowers and McArdle] because he doesn’t need the ball in his stick. He’s a great picker, he’s a great cutter, has really good smarts and instincts when he plays, and he’s an underrated passer.”

According to offensive assistant Robert Cross, Walker recognizes team-specific defensive rotations and thinks “2-3 passes ahead.” Those elite instincts combined with a gunslinger skill set have launched Walker’s off-ball efficiency to levels on-par with the top shooters in the game.

Walker's Instincts

The expression “work smarter, not harder,” perfectly describes Walker’s play style. A good portion of his shots this season have been wide open because he knows where the defender is going, sometimes before they do. He rarely needs to sprint. 

In the second quarter against Chrome, Jake Carraway set a pick in the corner for Sowers, who curled around the left side. At once, Walker crept down from the arc to set an off-ball screen on Ryan Terefenko. But Walker’s defender, Eli Salama, got caught looking in a mass of bodies on the pick-and-slip. Sowers pulled out of his dodge to feed an unmarked Walker on the doorstep, who basically placed the ball in the back of the net.

As soon as Sowers came through the screen, all four defenders in the middle had their backs to the goal. Walker saw that, but showed the discipline to let Ryan Conrad clear his screen before slipping past them all unnoticed. 

“We feel like we can’t take him off the field right now,” Cross said. “His ability to read space, his IQ and timing make him very dangerous. He’s just so clever, and with that gun-slinger mentality, he can pick you apart from anywhere.”

Seeing and manipulation space, with and without the ball, has landed Walker at the top of the man-up unit. With that volume passing and quick decision-making, Walker has the most passes on the team (134). Cross described him as the most consistent offensive player you could have because he’s present on every set and active on every play. 

In week one, Walker assisted Connor Kelly’s first two-pointer of the season by freezing Will Bowen in the middle on a man-up possession. Taking the ball on the wing, Walker started down Ryan Conrad on the doorstep before dropping it off to Kelly on his left, who rifled a 98 MPH long ball past Blaze Riorden.

It may not look like much, but Walker’s split-second hesitation was both purposeful and vital to this play’s success. By scanning the inside for just one second, he kept Bowen from committing to either player, even though Conrad was already marked down low. Bowen failed to close out in time. In a low-scoring game that finished 8-7 in overtime, that two-ball could have easily been the difference.

It’s almost too perfect that someone named “Walker” doesn’t need to work at full-speed, because his brain is already 5 seconds ahead. 

Ethan Walker becoming the sharpest shooter

Walker has stepped into Ryan Brown’s old role this year, which Copelan described as the team’s biggest need during the offseason. Filling the shoes of one of the game’s greatest shooters is no easy task, but Walker won the role over Carraway and has been among the best statistical shooters at the halfway point.

“Not comparing him to Ryan, but they have similar roles,” Cross said. “They’re the trigger guy that moves the offense and keeps everybody moving and finding space and creating space. When he gets the ball, God has blessed him with a pair of silky mitts. He can put it home in tight, mid-range and he’s got multiple release points.”

Against Atlas, Walker showed off his shot in the comeback effort, which eventually resulted in a 19-18 win for the Waterdogs. In the third quarter, Carraway cradled a skip pass and moved toward the middle of the arc, where Tucker Durkin came to cut him off. Walker, who was up top, backed into the open lane as soon as Durkin abandoned his post. He then banged a low-to-high missile that sent Jack Concannon to his knees.

Walker took his time with this shot. The lane was completely parted, and he used that half-second to step into it with a different release point than he’d used previously. It was somewhere between sidearm and a low shot that fooled Concannon, making it 6-12 in the third quarter.

As the third option at attack, Walker’s consistently quick release has been key to his success. Because he doesn’t draw much attention with his movements, defenses often switch off him to help elsewhere, and Walker’s always ready for it. 

He rarely holds the ball for more than a few seconds because he doesn’t need to think about his next move. That’s always been part of his arsenal, and it’s paid off in the big moments.

During last year’s championship game, the ‘Dogs won the opening fourth quarter faceoff with a 9-8 lead. It came around to McArdle at X and, for some reason, nobody marked Walker on the right wing. Jarrod Neumann had been pointing his stick indicating someone should pick him up – nobody did, so he took off to obstruct the shot. He didn’t get there in time, and Walker short-hopped the far low corner past Riorden. The force of the shot brought the ball right back at him.

Once again, Walker found himself unmarked, but he didn't rush it. Even with Neumann crashing in on him, he took his time and got it off. That shot rarely comes around in big moments, so Walker took the extra care to put it in the only spot that would definitely beat Riorden. 

This is Cross’ favorite Walker goal because of the sliver of daylight he fit it through, but also the magnitude of the score. In the fourth quarter of the championship game, Walker beat a Neumann close out and Riorden save attempt with one perfectly placed ball. The Waterdogs never trailed again, and raised the Championship Trophy 20 minutes later. 

“I was just like, ‘dang, you gotta be really good to bang a low corner like that and have it roll right back toward you,’” Cross said.

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