It was a mystery to Dantley Walker where he was headed next. Two years ago, he waited for a mission assignment for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Two of my best friends went out at about the same time, and one went to South Africa and the other went to Mexico City,” he said.
Walker, from a Mormon family in the tiny Nevada town of Panaca, was relieved to be sent to Spokane, Wash. But he always knew he eventually would end up in Las Vegas.
In April 2011, a day after Dave Rice was hired to replace Lon Kruger as UNLV basketball coach, Rice called Walker to reaffirm his commitment.
“Hey, I still want you here,” Rice said. “Do you still want to come?”
Walker’s answer: “Absolutely.”
His immediate future is not as absolute, yet it appears likely Walker will redshirt as a freshman. Any game action he gets in the Rebels’ exhibition against Division II Adams State (Colo.) at 7 p.m. today at the Thomas & Mack Center could be his last for this season.
Rice and Walker plan to meet after the exhibition and determine the 5-foot-11-inch guard’s status prior to UNLV’s regular-season opener against Portland State on Friday.
“It is an important decision that has to be made,” Walker said. “If I could, I would love to play. I told him I would do whatever is best for the team.”
Rice’s roster is deep in the backcourt, and senior guard Kevin Olekaibe was added to the rotation Monday, when the NCAA approved his eligibility for this season, as expected.
Olekaibe, a transfer from Fresno State, could move into a starting role immediately if the Mountain West adds a final stamp of approval. Junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, the Rebels’ top returning scorer, missed Monday’s practice and might be out a week or more with a right hamstring injury.
Walker figures to be the seventh guard on the depth chart behind Dejean-Jones, Olekaibe, juniors Deville Smith and Jelan Kendrick, sophomore Daquan Cook and freshman Kendall Smith.
“I’m never going to force anyone to redshirt,” Rice said. “Dantley’s certainly a candidate, and we’ll talk about the possibility of doing that.”
Walker was a prolific scorer at Lincoln County High School, where he left as the state’s all-time leader in points (3,304) and 3-pointers made (475). He scored 73 points in game. Still, his accomplishments in Class 2A were shadowed by credibility questions.
Kansas and Kentucky were not knocking on his door, but Kruger liked what he was seeing and Rice agreed.
Walker returned from his mission at 152 pounds and is up to 162. He knows there are questions about whether a small shooting guard from a small town can run with major Division I competition.
“Not a lot of people knew where Panaca was and still don’t, and yes, there’s going to be doubters,” Walker said. “But I’ve got to work as hard as I can and prove to people I can play at this level. I feel like the rust is coming off and I’m getting back into the groove.”
If Rice has a big concern, it’s Walker’s time away from basketball. In his return to game action Friday, Walker scored three points in eight minutes in UNLV’s 71-70 exhibition loss to Dixie State.
“He’s starting to get his conditioning back,” Rice said. “As much as anything, no game experience for two years is a factor.”
During his mission, Walker was able to shoot around once or twice a week. But his travels through Washington, Idaho and Montana were all about life experiences and nothing about beating defenders off the dribble.
“It was a good time to put myself on the back shelf and help others. I think about how much it has helped me mature as a person,” Walker said. “But I love being in the gym as much as I can. I missed it every single day.”
■ NOTES — Rice said he’s “very optimistic” that junior center Khem Birch will start Friday. Birch, who has ankle and toe injuries, is doubtful to play today. … Adams State has faced UNLV once in the regular season. The Rebels beat the Grizzlies 102-76 in 1966.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.