He had started Derrick Walton for the first ten games of his college career, but the season hadn’t quite gone according to plan. Michigan was just 6-4 and had dropped a heartbreaking losses at home to Arizona. Walton scored one point and played just 14 minutes in the loss, a low point in his freshman season.
But Beilein’s commitment to Walton never wavered. He knew that it couldn’t. Derrick Walton will “be back there in that starting lineup,” Beilein told reporters on December 16th.
The gamble is paying off.
Nik Stauskas is a top-five offensive talent in the country. Caris LeVert might be the most improved player in the conference. Glenn Robinson III is a future pro. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford have elevated their game without Mitch McGary. Even Zak Irvin has emerged as a reliable sniper off the bench.
But Walton’s improvements in the last month have been the difference in Michigan’s season.
Walton was never going to replace Trey Burke, but he’s starting to realize that he doesn’t have to. The Wolverines have other talented players, but need Walton as a supporting piece, just like Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III were last season.
Early on in the season, Walton looked like a guy trying to make up for Trey Burke’s production with every play. The game was moving too quickly for him and everything he did on the floor was rushed. His shot selection was questionable, his turnovers were elevated and Michigan’s offensive flow was clearly limited when he was on the floor.
“I think Derrick went through a stretch where he was kind of confused about how every game people were playing him in different ways,” Beilein said in mid-January. “And he had to adjust to the game flow. He’s fought through a lot, but he sees it differently now.”
John Beilein knows a thing or two about freshman point guards.
In 2010, Beilein learned how quickly everything can go wrong with a freshman point guard. Darius Morris had the least efficient season ever by a Michigan player under John Beilein and the Wolverines failed to go .500. Morris’s sophomore season was a different story, but his freshman year, which was supposed to be Beilein’s best yet in Ann Arbor, was a failure.
In 2012, Beilein had another chance and he rode Trey Burke to the Big Ten Championship. Burke was a once-in-a-generation talent at the point guard position, but Beilein brought him along masterfully.
The situation has changed this year, but Beilein is starting his third freshman point guard in the last five years. The start to Walton’s freshman season was more like Darius Morris than Trey Burke, but Beilein was able to reel him in. Suddenly, he’s showing signs of being something special.
“The very best ones — first of all, it’s very rare that they start and it’s very rare that they do everything to get a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, to shoot from deep with good percentages and also run their team. You watch the really good ones, it usually takes a couple years,” Beilein explained. “Derrick’s somewhere between there, where the past couple weeks he’s really shown some flashes of playing beyond his years, of the typical freshman point guard.”
Michigan simplified the offense with Mitch McGary out of the equation, leaning more on Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert to initiate the offense and allowing Walton to play a complementary scoring role. The shift worked.
Walton is shooting the lights out in Big Ten games and has also been able to cut his turnovers. His usage is down, but his efficiency has been ridiculous. He’s hitting threes, he’s finishing at the rim and he’s making his free throws. His per-game averages would be even more impressive had he not missed the majority of the Iowa game with flu-like symptoms.
Shooting & Scoring
Everyone loves to joke that Nik Stauskas isn’t just a shooter. It’s time to start realizing that Derrick Walton Jr. is a pretty good shooter.
Walton has the second best 3-point field goal percentage in Big Ten games – 12-of-23 (52%) – and his effective field goal percentage is extremely impressive at 55.6 percent. He might not have the volume of a Brust, Ferrell, Stauskas or Harris, but he’s knocking down the attempts that come his way. Here’s how Walton stacks up against other Michigan players in Big Ten games (conference rank in the first column).
Walton has excelled knocking down shots from the right side of the floor, along the wing and in the corner. Coincidentally, the place where he’s spending more time with Stauskas serving as a facilitator.
Walton is also finishing inside the arc (58%) and getting to the free throw line (68.5 throw rate) in conference games. For a 6-foot-1 freshman, both of those statistics are extremely impressive. Walton’s 2-point shooting ranks eighth in the league, and second among players standing shorter than 6-foot-6, while his free throw rate in Big Ten play is fourth best in the conference.
Walton’s offensive production has sky rocketed thanks to his hot shooting ability, his distribution continues to lag behind. Walton (27) has fewer assists than Nik Stauskas (45) and Caris LeVert (33) in Big Ten games and he only has five more assists than Spike Albrecht (22) despite playing 118 more minutes.
Walton has been Michigan’s No. 3 assist man during the last 12 games.
Walton has also struggled to create for his teammates in the lane. The majority of his assists are for jumpshots rather than layups or dunks. Only 35 percent of Walton’s assists have been for layups or dunks, a major difference from Stauskas who has a 50-50 distribution. For reference, about half of Trey Burke’s assists last season were also for dunks and layups.
Because of his tendency to find jump shooters, it should come as no surprise that Walton’s favorite targets also tend to be guards. Glenn Robinson III – everyone’s favorite passing target – leads the way, but is followed by Stauskas, LeVert and Irvin. Walton has only thrown 11 assists to big men, five of which were to Mitch McGary before his injury.
Generating the same graph for Stauskas, we can see that he loves to get the ball to his big men. Stauskas has thrown 31 assists to Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford, accounting for one-third of their made field goals this season.
Derrick Walton has always had talent – no one ever questioned that. He excelled as a prep in Michigan and at a number of high profile Adidas AAU events. While the transition to the college game wasn’t seamless, Walton is finally out of the limelight and turning into a critical player for the Wolverines.
Walton isn’t going to shoot the lights out forever, and he’s probably going to go through at least one more rough patch this season, but John Beilein loves his attitude.
“He’s been really good at just taking it day-to-day, saying, ‘I made a lot of mistakes today, coach, but I’m going to better tomorrow’ -type of attitude,” Beilein said. “It’s shown sometimes that he’s really gaining confidence. It’s also shown on some occasions that he still is learning. At any rate, he has a chance to be a great leader and quarterback for this team for a very long time.”
The best news might be that Walton isn’t scared of the spotlight. He’s already seized the moment at Nebraska and at Michigan State, making critical plays in the final minutes to ice away statement victories. Both sure signs that Walton is gaining confidence, these are also the kind of plays that Michigan needs from Walton now and in the future.
The Wolverines need Walton and will need him down the stretch in the Big Ten race, and more importantly in the NCAA tournament.