Johnnie Walter had a dilemma.
The 6' 10" forward had just wrapped up his freshman season at California State University, Northridge. He played in 25 games for the Matadors, starting in five, and recording season highs of four points and six rebounds.
But then, his team was eliminated from the Big West Tournament, and Trent Johnson left the team as head coach. Two weeks later, Andy Newman was named the new head of the Matador men's basketball program, and he promptly gave Walter and seven other players an ultimatum.
"He basically told eight out of the ten returners that there wasn't gonna be a spot for us," Walter said. "That's why, on the second-to-last day of the transfer portal, I entered my name in."
For Walter, entering the transfer portal and moving to a different school offered an opportunity for a second chance. He isn't alone.
According to On3, a recruiting aggregator, 1,134 NCAA men's basketball players entered the transfer portal during this past offseason. Some — like Walter — entered to get away from a toxic situation. Others were seeking more playing time or opportunities to star on a bigger stage. All of them thought their interests would be best served elsewhere.
The transfer portal has exploded in the last few years — just 466 entered two years ago — following a 2021 decision by the NCAA to loosen the rules regarding one-time transfers of college athletes. Previously, athletes would have to sit out a year before being eligible to play for their new teams, and forgo a year of their collegiate eligibility. But now, those who had not yet transferred would have the opportunity to suit up immediately.
Walter wasn't the first transfer to join Penn men's basketball under coach Steve Donahue. The program embraced the idea of adding talent through methods other than recruiting from high school years ago, and in the past has added transfers such as Matt MacDonald and Caleb Wood — who were key contributors to the Quakers' 2018 Ivy League Championship Team — and Michael Moshkovitz, who graduated last year.
"When [I] got here nine years ago, we thought about [the transfer portal] from the start just to see if there's a way to supplement what you have coming back," Donahue said.
But Walter is the first transfer Donahue has added in the new era of transfer portal rules. Therefore, he's the first transfer who will be able to play immediately after suiting up in Red and Blue. While Donahue wasn't totally opposed to the old rules, he looks forward to Walter being on the team this year, and for his part, Walter is ready to go.
"Being able to play right away is huge," he said. "That's a huge part of the reason why I would transfer. If that wasn't the case, I might have tried to stay but since I could play right away now it's really nice."
Even though Walter's path to the Palestra included a yearlong stopover in Northridge, Donahue had his eye on him since high school. The coach noted how Walter's size was a plus to the Quakers, and that he thought Walter would be a good fit.
Beyond just the basketball fit, Donahue knew that Walter had a strong academic background, which would allow him to enjoy the non-basketball aspects of life as a Penn student-athlete. But Donahue recruited Walter to be on the court.
"I thought we needed more frontcourt help," Donahue said. Walter is "someone who can play the four with a little more size. But the other part about him is his skill level and his basketball IQ, and then when we dove in depth about him, people raved about him."
What Donahue sees in Walter, the player also sees in himself. His parents are German and Walter embraced his heritage last summer by representing Germany at last summer's FIBA U20 EuroBasket. But he also looks to these roots by emulating the game of Dirk Nowitski, a German legend and one of the greatest power forwards of all time.
"We're basically the same height, so I watched him a lot," he said. "I watched a lot of his footwork in the post and I love his outside shooting."
But even as the Quakers picked up Walter in the transfer portal, they also lost a key piece to it as well. Guard Jordan Dingle — whose 22.4 points per game placed him second in NCAA Division I and earned him the Ivy League Men's Player of the Year Award — left to St. John's last May, even though he would have been eligible to play in Red and Blue this season. Now, without the services of its offensive centerpiece, Penn has had to use this offseason to rebuild significant parts of its identity as a team.
All of this has prompted discussions about whether structural change to college basketball is necessary to curb some of the chaos of the transfer portal and help mid-major programs like Penn entice and retain talent. But even as a firsthand witness to how talent can just walk out the door to the transfer portal, Donahue isn't too concerned.
"I think our league in general is immune to what's going on in college basketball," Donahue said. "Jordan was the only really undergraduate transfer from our eight schools. I anticipate that to be the same. All these kids, for the most part, that come to the Ivy, had other opportunities at a high school and still decided that this was the right place for them for not just the four years but the lifetime that it gives them. I don't think that's going to change. I do think there's going to be a Jordan Dingle every so often that feels that he needs to make a change for whatever reason. But for the most part, I think we're going to be immune to it in our league."
But Dingle is gone, and as the season approaches, both Donahue and Walter are looking ahead to how the CSUN transfer can help the Quakers in their quest for their first Ivy Championship since 2018. Since he traded in black and red for Red and Blue over the summer, Walter has been putting in the work to get to know his new teammates, and can't wait to get started.
"I just want to bring a lot of energy to the team this year," he said. "I'm super excited to be here."