Derrick Walton did most of his offensive damage from beyond the arc.
Michigan learned a difficult lesson about the importance of the point guard position in John Beilein's system two years ago. Unfortunately, they learned the same lesson again last year. From the 2015-16 season preview:
As Michigan learned the hard way in 2014-15, it all starts with the point guard in John Beilein's system. Derrick Walton is healthy again after a foot injury derailed and then prematurely ended his sophomore season; now he's poised for the patented LaVall Jordan second-year leap a year later than expected. Spike Albrecht is recovering from surgery on his hips but should be a full go early in the season, giving the Wolverines a starter-quality backup.
Despite returning to full health, Derrick Walton had many of the same issues that were initially blamed on his foot injury—most glaringly, he remained woefully inefficient as a scorer inside the arc. Walton's support vanished when Spike Albrecht, not fully recovered from his hip surgeries, was shut down after nine games. For the second straight year, John Beilein was compelled to pull a redshirt off Andrew Dakich to provide spot minutes.
Walton has one final go-round to break into that elite tier of point guards. While Spike is off to Purdue, there's still good reason to hope point guard depth (finally) won't be an issue this year, as Ohio's Mr. Basketball, Xavier Simpson, joins the squad.
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Not ideal. [Bryan Fuller]
Measurables: 6'1", 190
Base Stats: 33.6 MPG, 11.6 PPG, 36/39/82 2P/3P/FT%, 5.4 REB/G, 147 assists, 67 turnovers, 59 steals
Key Advanced Metrics: 21.7% usage, 108.7 ORating, 24.4 assist rate, 16.3 turnover rate, 18.3 defensive rebound percentage
Derrick Walton is close to putting it all together. As a junior, he saw a very slight uptick in usage and still managed to post by far his best assist-to-turnover numbers while knocking down 39% of his triples, posting a top-15 defensive rebound rate in the entire conference (as a point guard!), and finishing in the top 100 in steal rate. He's a great outside shooter, a solid distributor, an elite rebounding guard, and an improving defender. That is nearly the complete package. What's missing is best demonstrated by a comparison of his freshman- and junior-year shot charts:
Freshman year at left; junior year at right.
Ever since Walton's sophomore-year foot injury, he's been brutally bad inside the arc; his 36% mark on two-pointers last season was actually a slight improvement over his 32% mark during his injury-shortened season. Walton displayed an ability to finish at the rim during his freshman year, albeit in a markedly different role; as the degree of difficulty has gone up, his finishing has regressed.
Walton probably isn't going to become an elite finisher overnight—even if lingering effects of the foot injury impacted his numbers last year, his struggles contined through the end of the season. For such a deadeye shooter, though, he's never had much of a midrange game, and both John Beilein and Billy Donlon mentioned on media day that could be the way to mitigate the issues at the rim. Beilein:
Derrick’s had, I sense he’s going to have much-improved numbers in that area between 15 feet and one foot, where it is tough, tough twos. Every NBA team, every college team is trying to get guys to take tough twos, right? And that’s what Derrick will have to make, right, for as long as he plays basketball, because he’s an elite shooter, and so people are going to try to take that away. He’s not going to go up and dunk over people, so he’s going to have to make tough twos, and that’s a thing he’s worked on, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does.
Another way Walton's numbers could improve is if Michigan gets out in transition more often. The expected defensive overhaul under Donlon should yield more turnovers; Wright State had four top-15 finishes in turnover rate in Donlon's six years as head coach there. Walton was great on the fast break as a freshman. He'd benefit more than anyone else on the team from more transition opportunities. He might even create a good number of them himself—his 59 steals last year more than doubled his career total.
For a four-year starter, Walton has a surprising number of questions to answer in his senior season. His success, and the team's, will come down to his ability to score with efficiency—everything else is in place for him to be an all-conference point guard. The presence of Xavier Simpson, who will allow Walton to slide over and play the two—putting an emphasis on his best attribute, spot-up shooting—could be the key to maximizing Walton's production. On that note...
Measurables: 6'0", 180
Recruiting profile: Four-star, #13 PG, #66 overall (247 Composite)
Nike EYBL Stats: 28.5 MPG, 15.9 PPG, 51/35/79 2P%/3P%/FT%, 4.4 RPG, 4.9 APG, 2.6 TOPG
This is completely unfair to the kid, but Xavier Simpson's recruiting profile is remarkably similar to that of Trey Burke. Both were undersized point guards out of Ohio who didn't grab the attention of the Buckeyes; both won Ohio's Mr. Basketball in their senior seasons; both wound up at Michigan after nearly going to other Big Ten programs (Burke was committed to Penn State, Simpson seriously considered Wisconsin).
Much like Burke, Simpson's offense is mostly derived from his court savvy, quickness, and handles. While he posted decent three-point numbers (28-for-79) in the EYBL, Simpson isn't considered a knockdown shooter. He's a much better scorer in transition and off the dribble; we'll have to see how he adjusts to finishing in traffic at the college level.
Michigan doesn't need Simpson to be a primary scoring option, however, at least not this year. Instead, he'll be asked to facilitate the offense while Walton, MAAR, Duncan Robinson, and/or Zak Irvin look to set up their shots off the ball. Beilein:
Here’s what I’ve seen with Xavier: he’s very, very quick in small spaces, when he’s got to. He’s almost like a running back that can hit the hole and just cut and get into spots, he’s really good at that. He really sees the game very well. He sees what’s going on. Our upperclassmen, no matter who it is and who the younger guys are, are really encouraging and helping them. There’s a lot of arm around in practice, here’s what Coach is talking about, and it’s been very helpful. But Derrick, yeah, Derrick knows that he is the heir apparent here, and Derrick is going to challenge him. You should look forward to seeing both of them in the backcourt at the same time, let Derrick come off and just hunt shots and let X run the team. You could see that more than you’d ever expect.
With so much depth on the wing gone from last year's team, that two-PG look should be a very common one this season, and there's reason to believe it could be Michigan's best lineup on both ends of the floor. In addition to being an excellent facilitator, Simpson is reputed to be a good perimeter defender—while he's undersized, he's quick enough to stay in front of opposing guards, and that is paramount in Donlon's gap defense, which like the pack-line emphasizes preventing dribble penetration above all else.
Any scoring that comes from Simpson would be a bonus this year. Even without big numbers, he should be one of Michigan's most valuable rotations pieces from the get-go. If Simpson can routinely drive and kick for assists, play decent defense, and avoid too many turnovers, he'll be a big part of the team this season while setting himself up for a much bigger role in the years to come.
Measurables: 6'2", 190
Base Stats: 4.6 MPG, 0.6 PPG, 4/6 2-pt, 1/6 3-pt, 14 assists, 8 turnovers, 6 steals
Still the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option, though that should only be necessary in case of injury. Dakich would like to redshirt so he can grad transfer and play a bigger role for his final year of eligibility, while Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman can play stints at point guard to cover for any spare minutes left by Walton and Simpson.
This probably goes without saying, but if Dakich plays, it spells trouble for Michigan. For a guy who's simply supposed to keep the ball moving when he's in the game, Dakich turns the ball over far too frequently (34.6 TO%), and his outside shot doesn't keep defenses honest.
While hopefully not a member of the rotation, Dakich remains a critical component of M's Bench Mob.