Indiana Daily Student

The life of walk-ons at a blue blood: Walk-ons play vital role for Indiana men’s basketball

<p>Senior forward Nate Childress takes a selfie with fans during his introduction at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall for Hoosier Hysteria on Oct. 7, 2022. Childress is one of four walk-ons on Indiana men&#x27;s basketball this season.</p>

Senior forward Nate Childress takes a selfie with fans during his introduction at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall for Hoosier Hysteria on Oct. 7, 2022. Childress is one of four walk-ons on Indiana men's basketball this season.

Visit Michael Shipp’s Indiana Athletics page and at first it doesn’t look much different from anyone else’s. Position: Guard. Height: 6’3’’. Weight: 195 lbs. He’s a senior, with junior eligibility.  

It’s the stats page that looks abnormal compared to the rest of the roster. In 2019-20: one game played. One minute. In 2020-21: one game played. One minute. One attempted 3-point field goal, but it didn’t go in. In 2021-22: “Did not appear in game action.” 

Shipp is one of four walk-ons on the Hoosiers’ 2022-23 roster. Combined, they have 30 minutes of career playing time, 21 of which belong to senior Nathan Childress. Another seven belong to junior Hogan Orbaugh, all during his time at the University of Louisville. Sophomore Shaan Burke is still looking for his first appearance. 

Shipp and the other walk-ons practice almost as much as the scholarship athletes. They devote the same amount of time and are as much a part of the team. But they don’t get the same recognition and they don’t get the glory. 

So why do they do it?  

"I love the game,” Shipp said. “Played it my whole life. I love watching film, breaking down film. I just love basketball.” 

*** 

The walk-ons, by default, have to be unselfish.  

While they’re not putting as many miles in at practice and often don’t have to participate in scrimmages, they do plenty of running and practicing while getting almost none of the reward. The majority of their job is to run scout team, acting as players from the opposing team for Indiana’s scholarship players to prepare for. On gamedays they’re there to bring energy. 

Despite only having two career appearances, Shipp never gets down about his role or lack of playing time. He knows what he signed up for and even appreciates the fact he won’t have fans hunting him down on Twitter after a bad game.  

“I know I’m valued in that locker room,” Shipp said. “I kind of like the fact that no one knows who I am.” 

The walk-ons have a job to do, one just as important to Indiana’s success as any other member of the team. When someone gets a steal because the walk-ons prepared them for the right play, their value shines, even if fans won’t see it.

“The walk-ons are everything,” senior forward Race Thompson said at Indiana basketball media day. “We would not be the team we are without them. They’re some of the best guys on the team.” 

Thompson said he would struggle if he were in the walk-ons' position, rarely getting playing time while spending most games on the bench. Thompson sat out his freshman year to redshirt and only played nine games his second year. 

“I did it for two years and it was some of the hardest years of my life,” Thompson said. “Most of them were the best players on their high school teams and they come here and they just basically come to practice. They're on the team, but they don't get to play very much.”

But their character is that of someone who doesn’t mind the role. Shipp said he’s always been the type of guy to sit under the radar and play No. 2 to the star of the team — as long as he’s winning. Childress, who said competition always motivates him, is the same way.  

While at Zionsville Community High School, Childress shared the court with Orbaugh and Isaiah Thompson, who is now a junior guard at Purdue. 

“On most high school teams, Nathan would’ve averaged 22 to 25 points,” Shaun Busick, then head coach of Zionsville, said. “On our team, he averaged 14 or 15 because he was playing the role of Klay Thompson to Steph Curry. Nathan always accepted that well.” 

With Childress and Orbaugh accepting roles as the second and third options, Zionsville excelled. It won back-to-back sectionals for the first time in 60 years. 

In one game in 2018, Childress was tasked with guarding Valparaiso High School’s Brandon Newman, now a junior guard at Purdue. While Newman outscored Childress, putting up 22 points to Childress’s 20, it didn’t come easy. Childress held him to 7-for-25 shooting from the field. 

“Nathan outplayed him,” Busick said. “That was a big defining moment his senior year, like ‘this guy’s a legitimate Mr. Basketball candidate, yet I can play right with him.’” 

Childress, who is 6 feet 6–inches tall, still had to adjust to the size and physicality regularly faced in the Big Ten, including his own teammates. 

“Most of the time in high school I was one of the bigger guys on court and coming in here that wasn't the case,” Childress said. “I played against (former Indiana forward) Justin Smith quite a bit my freshman year. He's a pretty freakin’ big kid.” 

Childress had a scholarship to NAIA Bethel University in Mishawaka, Indiana. Busick knew he would be a good fit there, and thought he had a chance to become an NAIA All-American.  

But as Childress kept visiting Bethel, he started to lose interest in the idea of playing there. His Amateaur Athletic tic Union coach, Jonny Marlin, who himself was a walk-on at Indiana before transferring to Indiana Wesleyan University and becoming an NAIA All-American, helped Childress secure a tryout at Assembly Hall. 

“My family and myself, I grew up an Indiana fan being from Indiana originally,” Childress said. “When opportunity presented itself, it was just too good to pass.” 

Before making the decision, he sat down with Busick. 

Busick asked him what he wanted to do, reminding him of his potential to break out at Bethel while getting a free education. But Childress told him playing for Indiana was his dream and he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. 

“I told him, ‘Nathan, I think you made the right decision,’” Busick said. “In Nathan’s case, it was a lifelong dream to be an Indiana Hoosier. I don’t know a head coach in college basketball that wouldn’t want a guy that wanted to really be there.” 

Shipp’s path to Indiana was similar. He won two state championships in high school at Archbishop Moeller in Cincinnati, Ohio. He received offers to Division II schools, but never found a right fit, ending up at the same tryout as Childress.  

Childress’ biggest game came last year against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He played five minutes — a career-high — and with just over four minutes to go, drained a 3-pointer for his first career bucket.

He may have also ignited a rivalry with his high school teammate in Orbaugh.

"At Louisville, before coming to Indiana, he had scored a three already, so I was just trying to catch up with him,” Childress said. “I couldn’t let him graduate with more points than me.”

Childress appeared late against Northwestern on Feb. 8 in a game where five Hoosiers were suspended. Down to seven scholarship players, head coach Mike Woodson called on him for a few minutes late in the game. Childress said Woodson talked about it with him beforehand.

Childress said he has a simple method to prepare for a game he expects to play in. 

“I tie my shoes up a little tighter,” Childress said. 

The factor of how much playing time he would see — if any — was something Childress had to mull over before committing to Indiana. It was an adjustment, he said, but he knew he had to come in with that mindset.  

Shipp can go to the grocery store without getting stopped. Childress watches Trayce Jackson-Davis get stopped constantly for pictures at tailgates while he goes unnoticed. It’s the tradeoff they made for attending Indiana as walk-ons and sacrificing playing time. But they love being Hoosiers and playing alongside the team nonetheless. 

“They’re just great teammates,” Shipp said. “It wouldn't be fun if my teammates were assholes. They’re great teammates, they’re great dudes, they’re fun to be around. It’s why I come back year after year.”

Follow reporters Evan Gerike (@EvanGerike) and Emma Pawlitz (@emmapawlitz) and columnist Bradley Hohulin (@BradleyHohulin) for updates throughout the Indiana men’s basketball season.

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