Upchurch – MGoBlog
Michigan’s first stroke of bad luck came late in November: the Wolverines had just lost a hard-fought contest to eventual 1-seed Villanova in Brooklyn, but starting point guard Derrick Walton suffered some sort of toe injury – one that would affect him for the remainder of the year, eventually sidelining him for good in late January. It was evident that the injury sapped Walton of his explosiveness, both vertically and running in the open floor, but he played through it until his other foot was injured, most likely due to overcompensation for his original injury.
After a disappointing sophomore campaign, it’s prudent to recall exactly how good Walton was as a freshman. He started all but one game for a team that would come to the brink of a return trip to the Final Four and excelled in a modest role on offense. Derrick got better throughout the season: he posted a gaudy offensive rating (120.8) on a not-insignificant usage rate (18.4) in conference play while posting the fourth-highest free throw rate of qualifying players in the Big Ten; he was arguably Michigan’s best perimeter defender; he shot 41% from three on the season on 105 attempts. Expectations were naturally quite optimistic for the highly-touted Detroit point guard entering his sophomore season.
It’s hard to quantify exactly how much of Walton’s struggles were due to his injury, the stark decline in talent around him, or the burden of an increased role on offense, but the drop-off was so severe that the injury is the best explanation. After shooting an impressive 59% at the rim as a freshman, he shot 41% inside the restricted area as a sophomore – evidence that his toe was clearly bothering him. Derrick was still called on to play just shy of 40 minutes a game (barring auto-bench foul trouble in the first half) and, even though Spike Albrecht played well down the stretch, Walton was clearly Michigan’s first option at the point guard spot before his season-ending injury.
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[After the jump: let's go back to the beginning]
How good was he as a freshman?
Entering his ill-fated sophomore year, Derrick was poised to move into the Big Ten’s upper echelon of point guards – and even though he was a prized recruit, most of that hype was derived from his stellar play as a freshman. In his season preview for ‘14-‘15, Ace wrote this about Walton:
Walton came to Ann Arbor last year as a consensus top-50 recruit, and he displayed that level of potential while playing in a supporting role. He'll be asked to do a whole lot more this year, especially in the pick-and-roll game, and there were enough signs that he's destined for stardom last season that confidence is high in his ability to handle increased responsibility.
There are several spots one could point to heading into this season and say it's THE key for Michigan to continue their high level of success. Walton is one of them. If his three-point shooting can stay in the same range while he improves his on-ball efficiency, he should make a big push for all-conference honors, not to mention put the team in a position to win a whole lot of games.
Those expectations seemed very reasonable at the time, and it’s a shame that we weren’t able to see if Walton could fulfill the promise he showed as a freshman.
The biggest reason why Derrick experienced so much success in that freshman season was because of the players around him – Nik Stauskas blossomed into a superstar, Caris LeVert was a phenomenal second option, etc. – and how they enabled Walton to function in the offense. In his two seasons on campus, Derrick has shot 26/58 on corner three attempts (45%) and typically point guards rarely attempt those types of shots (because they’re almost invariably catch-and-shoot opportunities).
It’s evidence of his role as the rare “3-and-D” point guard – which, according to the strictures of basketball positionality, is hardly a point guard at all. Walton sometimes triggered the offense, but his assist rate was almost identical to Stauskas and LeVert’s, indicating that all three shared point guard duties. With how often Michigan ran high ball screens for their two wings, Walton was often able to spot-up off the ball to take high-value attempts, which he converted at an above-average rate. His defense was very good for a freshman in a tough league as well: that Derrick was able to play 2/3 of available minutes (compared to Spike Albrecht’s 1/3) spoke volumes as to how the coaches valued his defensive ability relative to Spike’s.
In my player comparison database, Yogi Ferrell’s freshman season was the 6th-closest to Walton’s – and Derrick was more efficient on higher usage. After this disappointing season, it was easy to forget how well some of Michigan’s personnel (namely the “Big Three” of LeVert, Irvin, and Walton) played in 2013-2014, but to think that Derrick was destined for All-Big Ten honors sooner rather than later was still reasonable, even in hindsight.
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These comparisons aren’t really that instructive, mostly because Walton’s minutes played (47.2% of available minutes) drags down the type of player that he’s compared with – simply put, it’s weird for a player with his usage to play such few minutes, but that’s because of his injury. It’s why LeVert’s so high on the list.
But there are a few interesting things to glean from here: Malcolm Hill is pretty much a power forward and JerShon Cobb played on the wing; Tracy Abrams had one of the single worst seasons in the player database of over 900 guys, but Brandon Paul, Jermaine Marshall, and Trevon Hughes were legitimately good-to-very good players. To me, the most surprising thing was that Walton graded out as most comparable to a freshman power forward (one who had somewhat of a breakout sophomore season, for whatever that’s worth) – though, when considering Walton’s rebounding ability and relative lack of distribution (compared to other point guards), it makes some sense.
Walton missed the game immediately following his initial injury against Villanova (which was a win over cupcake Nicholls St.) but the numbers above indicate the type of across-the-board drop-off he experienced over the whole season. After an efficient 1.06 points per shot attempt as a freshman, he totaled just 0.83 points per shot as a sophomore, although he was still able to get to the free throw line – a rare skill among Michigan’s personnel throughout the Beilein era. It should be noted that he improved on his already-good defensive rebounding numbers – Derrick somehow finished in the Top 500 in individual DR% for qualifying players last year despite his size (a listed 6’0) and the injury.
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The last we saw of Walton, he was giving a herculean effort in the Wisconsin game – a game that many feared would turn into a rout. Michigan still fell to the eventual Big Ten champions and national finalists in overtime, but that game was an undeniably positive development, one that may have given the team enough confidence to soldier on even without LeVert and Walton.
I’m willing to give Derrick a mulligan for this past year. It was clear that he wasn’t right after his toe injury, so any substantial critiques of his development (or lack thereof) should come with a huge asterisk. Zak Irvin had similar struggles to start the season, and he wasn’t limited by injury – by the end of the year, Irvin had made some clear strides in his game that suggests a potential breakout as a junior. Walton, unfortunately, didn’t have the time to progress through the end of Big Ten play, but it’s hard not to wonder what the team would have looked like had Walton been available.
In any case, as Michigan – and Derrick Walton – put that nightmare season behind them, this should be just a blip on the radar of what still looks to be an extremely promising career in the maize and blue.