Sometimes the best way to start these report card features is to look back at what we wrote last year. Last summer, the consensus on Walton’s freshman year was pretty clear. He faced high expectations at the point guard spot replacing Trey Burke as a freshman, but he mostly answered the bell. He started all season and played a critical role on a team that made the Elite Eight.
There’s not much to debate about Walton’s freshman season. He hit big shots and was a steady cog in an elite offense. He made the right passes and knocked down open shots, but he was a peripheral option as Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert were responsible for most of the heavy lifting. Reading through the report card, this line caught my eye:
“Walton has the legitimate opportunity to grow into a Yogi Ferrell-type player for Michigan.”
Walton’s sophomore season was marred by injury and disappointment and he obviously never came close to any sort of Yogi Ferrell-type production. Even when he was healthy it was Caris LeVert leading in the playmaking department and Zak Irvin serving as a secondary scoring option. For the year, Walton averaged 10.7 points, five rebounds and three assists per game — all modest improvements from his freshman season.
- Rebounding: Walton’s rebounding ability is almost unheard from a 6-foot point guard. His 16.7% defensive rebounding rate was second best on the team — trailing only Max Bielfeldt — and was critical on a team that wasn’t very strong on the defensive glass to begin with.
- Leadership: Walton isn’t the most vocal leader, but his experience and toughness are still important elements of his game. He played through injury for 13 games before eventually shutting things down. His game against Wisconsin — the last he played — was among his most impressive as he willed Michigan to overtime against the Badgers despite being clearly hobbled.
- Catch-and-shoot: Walton posted a 56.3 eFG% on catch and shoot situations according to Synergy Sports. According to Shot Analytics, he made 47% of his threes from the corners which were obviously his favorite spot, and a spot where almost every attempt is of the catch and shoot variety.
Room for Improvement
- Two-point scoring: Walton was 13 of 24 on two-point attempts in Michigan’s first five games. He injured his foot in the fifth game against Villanova in Brooklyn. He only made 13 two-pointers (on 54 attempts) after the injury. That’s 24% two-point shooting after the injury and he shot just 41% on shots at the rim as a sophomore. While I suppose you could argue that this was some sort of regression or a limitation in his game, this is the same point guard that shot 59% at the rim last season and videos like this are encouragement that he’ll be just fine next season.
- Pick and roll offense: Michigan scored just .847 points per possession when Derrick Walton shot or passed out of the ball screen last season. That was a sharp regression from Walton’s .985 points per ball screen last season and a cause for concern. Michigan needed to run more offense through Walton as a sophomore and he never quite looked up to the task of being the go-to guy in the offense.
- Shooting off the dribble: While he was a solid catch-and-shoot option, Walton struggled to shoot the ball off the dribble. According to Shot Analytics, he shot just 29% on jump shots above the break and in the mid-range from the elbows — areas where far fewer jumpers are assisted. His ability to improve in those areas will be critical to his development as a more versatile offensive option.
Walton sends the game to overtime against Wisconsin with a buzzer-beating three at the end of regulation.
No one is going to argue that Walton’s sophomore season was disappointing, but the injury factor brightens his overall outlook. Simply put, Walton wasn’t himself after he injured his toe against Villanova.
On the other hand, he didn’t do enough in those first five games that he was on the verge of making a Yogi Ferrell-type of jump into impact player and focal point on the offense either. He was good — 14 points and three assists per game — during that span, but he wasn’t really dominant either. Even when healthy, Walton looked a lot like the player we saw as a freshman rather than a player that had made a sophomore leap.
Now healthy, Walton will get another chance to play alongside Caris LeVert. He’ll also have the bonus of playing with the new and improved versions of Zak Irvin, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins — all of whom made massive strides in their games after Walton’s season ended due to injury.
It’s a bit harder to muster enthusiasm after last year compared to Walton’s stellar freshman year, but he’s still the same player. He’s a quick guard that can rebound and lead the team. Being able to fit in around LeVert, Irvin and the rest of Michigan’s talented backcourt should be a nice boost for him early in the season.
I still have high hopes for what Walton’s game will become. He’s one of Michigan’s top perimeter defenders, can knock down open shots and knows how to run the offense, but there are real questions that he needs to answer. Can he get into the lane off the bounce and finish at the rim? Can he develop into a reliable pick-and-roll option by knocking down shots off the bounce and finding the roll man despite his size?
I suspect the answer to many of these questions is ‘yes’ and that Walton will be hungry to prove it after sitting out injured for the final two months of last season.