In a decade of Michigan basketball that has seen more early-entry pros than four-year seniors, the Wolverines enter 2016-17 with a pair of senior starters. This will be Derrick Walton’s fourth consecutive season as Michigan’s starting point guard as he looks to finish out his career on a positive note.
It can be easy to drift into the what-ifs and what could have been when looking back at the first three years of Walton’s career. Injuries derailed his promising sophomore season and he never quite made that jump from cerebral point guard to playmaker as a junior. His early days of serving as the starting point guard on a Michigan team that won the Big Ten in a breeze and made the Elite Eight feel like ages ago.
With one year left to play, there’s little doubt that Walton’s senior year will define his legacy. Can Walton workout some of the kinks in his game that have held him back over the last two years? Can he take the next step and lead this Michigan team to the next level?
- Rebounding: Pound-for-pound and inch-for-inch, Walton is one of the best rebounders in the country. His 18.3% defensive rebounding rate was the best on Michigan’s roster last season and was ranked 18th in the conference. The shortest player ahead of him in the Big Ten in that statistic was Denzel Valentine at 6-foot-1. The next 6-foot-1 rebounder in the conference checks in at 65th.
- Three-point shooting: Walton shot 39% from three-point range on 161 attempts, trailing Duncan Robinson and Aubrey Dawkins on the roster in terms of efficiency. That seems like a solid baseline as his career numbers check in at 38.5% from long distance. The struggle for Walton’s shooting is that he is still much better shooting off the catch (68.1 eFG%, 96th percentile) than off the dribble (31.6 eFG%, 30th percentile), per Synergy.
- Defense: Walton was one of Michigan’s better perimeter defenders. He had several notable defensive showings against some of the Big Ten’s best point guards (including Melo Trimble) and probably still has some untapped potential on that side of the ball. It will be interesting to watch how Michigan’s ball screen defense adjusts with Billy Donlon taking on a greater influence.
Room for Improvement:
- Two-point scoring: For whatever reason, Walton simply can’t score inside the arc efficiently. His two-point shooting percentage fell from 45% as a freshman to 32% as an injury-riddled sophomore before bouncing back to a still below average 36% as a junior. Walton is unable to draw fouls as effectively as some other diminutive guards in the conference and as a result he shot just 42% on shots within five feet of the rim last season.
- Pick-and-roll efficiency: Michigan has been spoiled by some tremendous pick-and-roll players over the last few seasons, but Walton has struggled to take the next step as a ball screen guard. Michigan scored .851 points per ball screen possession that ended with a Walton shot, turnover or assist. That’s good for the 51st percentile nationally. He shot the ball on 52% of those pick-and-rolls and converted at a just a 36.1 eFG%, per Synergy Sports.
- Creating offense: All too often Walton was content to be the guy to move Michigan’s offense along rather than make something happen. There are plenty of times to just run the offense, but this Wolverine rotation needs playmakers and Walton needs to learn to do a better job of picking his spots and being more effective when he does.
For really the first time in his career, Walton will have to defend his job. Freshman point guard Xavier Simpson is coming to Ann Arbor with the intention of playing and may force his way onto the court, even if it means more two point guard looks. For Walton, that might be a benefit considering how many minutes he logged last season.
The 6-foot-1 guard played 90.8% of available minutes in Big Ten play, second most in the Big Ten. That’s too many minutes and this year he should be able to focus on playing 32 or 33 great minutes instead of 38 good minutes. Walton’s body has undeniably suffered through some wear and tear over the last two years and a reliable backup should provide a huge boost.
I’m most curious to see whether John Beilein opts to go with a two-point guard look with Walton and Simpson on the floor together. That would not just be an approach to get the best players the most minutes, but also a way to unlock Walton’s ability to shoot off the catch.
Regardless of how the backcourt rotation shakes out, I don’t think there’s any question that Walton has the ability to be the leader of this team. He might not lead in scoring column on every night, but his ability to run the offense, defend, and rebound should be the foundation of this team.
Clutch shots vs. Maryland.
Walton’s 12 point, 4-of-13 shooting night against Maryland was nothing special on paper, but he hit two of the biggest shots in the game to help give the Wolverines the victory over the top-ten ranked Terrapins. Walton held Melo Trimble in check all night as well, the Terp lead guard scored just 2 points on 1-of-7 shooting with four turnovers.