With the start of college basketball just weeks away, we’re breaking down Michigan’s roster player-by-player. Today we look at junior point guard Derrick Walton. Previously: Aubrey Dawkins, Caris LeVert.
Derrick Walton feels like a forgotten man amid the previews and speculation leading up to the 2015-16 Michigan basketball season.
The headlines have focused on Caris LeVert (the future pro) or Aubrey Dawkins (the presumed breakout star). Spike Albrecht and Zak Irvin have also been in the news as they rehab from injuries and both played extremely well down the stretch in 2015. At John Beilein’s Media Day press conference on Thursday, nobody asked a question about Walton through 20 minutes of questioning — leaving Beilein to bring up his junior point guard unprovoked so he received at least some mention.
Somehow Michigan’s starting point guard for the past two seasons is out of the limelight. This is the same point guard that helped the Wolverines win a Big Ten Championship and reach the Elite Eight as a true freshman starter. The same guard who hit game clinching shots on the road against Michigan State and Nebraska and added a buzzer beater against Wisconsin on one foot last season. A year after some writers tabbed Walton as a potential preseason All-Big Ten player, he’s become almost an afterthought when discussing the 2015-16 Wolverines.
Now that says a lot about Michigan’s depth and the number of exciting prospects on this roster, but let’s not forget how good Walton can be.
Yes, the numbers from last season are ugly. Walton shot just 32% on two-point attempts and 34% on three-point attempts while his assist rate dipped from its freshman level. But it’s hard to drive to the basket and finish when you’re unable to jump off of two feet or are worried to land safely. In fact, it’s hard to play basketball in any way shape or form when you only have one healthy foot.
Before injuring his foot, Walton averaged 15.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3 assists through five games. He was shooting the ball well inside and out early in the season and he was getting to the free throw line.
Usually when we discuss rebounding guards they are in the form of Caris LeVert or Denzel Valentine — long wing players that are active on the glass — but Derrick Walton is the rare rebounding true point guard. Standing just 6-foot tall, Walton posted a team-leading 16.7% defensive rebounding rate. That’s almost unheard of.
Walton grabbed defensive rebounds at a similar rate to Jake Layman or Jarrod Uthoff and was more active on the defensive glass than big men like Nigel Hayes, Sam Dekker or Gavin Schilling.
Michigan’s defensive scheme emphasizes that big men focus on boxing out so guards can crash to grab the loose rebounds. That is by design to emphasize transition opportunities for players like Walton or LeVert, but it is also to scheme around the fact that Michigan’s taller players are simply not very good rebounders. Ricky Doyle was a below-average defensive rebounder as a freshman while DJ Wilson and Moritz Wagner presumably both need significant improvement in that department before making an impact at the five position.
Derrick Walton is the sort of point guard that makes that game plan feasible and with the majority of Michigan’s questions in the frontcourt, he should be a nice crutch early on.
Derrick Walton regressed shooting the ball as a sophomore, but his struggles were almost assuredly injury induced. He left Brooklyn with a sprained toe and a respectable 56 eFG% from the floor — a hair above his freshman year numbers. Over the next 13 games, he shot just 26% on two-point attempts and 30% on three-point attempts.
For comparison, we’ve included Walton’s shot charts from his freshman and sophomore seasons. The corners continue to be his favorite three-point shots, but his efficiency at the rim is the obvious limiting factor.
Walton is one of the more experienced players on Michigan’s roster, but he’s yet to occupy a role that requires him to be a shot creator. As a freshman he was flanked by Nik Stauskas and Caris Levert, last season LeVert dominated the ball once again. This year the Wolverines still might not need Walton to take on that role, as LeVert returns and Zak Irvin emerged as a player that could create offense last season, but it sure would be a nice luxury.
The majority of Walton’s assists thus far in his career have come in the transition game. He’s great at pushing the ball and using his quickness to get up the floor. His room for growth is in the halfcourt offense where he’s struggled at times to find the roll man in the ball screen game or create easy looks for others off of his penetration.
Walton’s assist rate plateaued last season and his opportunities for growth in that area were hamstrung by his injuries. This year he could be playing alongside a very good wing group that includes LeVert, Irvin and Aubrey Dawkins so the assist opportunities will be there.
Michigan’s point guard
I’ve watched Derrick Walton fairly extensively since before he committed to Michigan in 2011 which made watching last season all the more painful. That Derrick Walton wasn’t Derrick Walton.
While Walton’s initial injury was almost undeniably mismanaged and let to greater injury, his recovery was handled properly once the Wolverine training staff shut him down in January. He got extensive rest and went through a rigorous rehab alongside Caris LeVert.
Watching him, even in just an open practice setting, it’s clear that he’s healthy again. He’s bouncing around the floor and looks to be in the best physical shape I’ve seen. With LeVert, Zak Irvin, Aubrey Dawkins and others flanking him on the wings, Michigan needs Walton to be efficient and keep the ball moving. Hit open shots, find the open man and let his teammates make plays.
What I’ll be curious to see is if he can take the next step as a leader. He’s shown signs of it in the past and admitted that it’s expected as the team’s point guard.
“My position calls for it. I don’t think it was a huge role change,” Walton said of being a leader. “I just have to embrace it a little more. Take it in stride and know that guys sometimes need some guidance.”
Michigan’s point guard is back, even if some seem to have forgotten about him.