Soph. PG Derrick Walton; 6-foot-1 185 lbs.
Walton has a leg up on Michigan's past two PG phenoms in that he came to campus guru approved. Both Trey Burke and Darius Morris were middling three/four-star talents to the scouting services, and both became NBA players. Walton was a borderline five-star prospect. There would be no surprising anyone from this freshman point guard.
However, Walton walked into a situation much more like that of Darius Morris as a freshman. Where Burke was thrust into the center of the offense in his first year out of necessity, Walton's first year was more like Morris's in which the point guard got to take more of a secondary role in the offense. Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert primarily ran things a year ago, which meant that Walton got to work himself into a bigger role as the season progressed.
To that end he was a plus-player for most of the year. His efficiency was an issue early in the year as turnovers and missed shots plagued his output as a point guard. But by February he had settled into a rhythm and was producing solid numbers for the most part. Where his early season numbers would often include equal numbers of assists and turnovers as well as lagging shooting percentages, by the end of the year he was dishing out twice as many assists as turnovers and hitting the lion's share of his threes and FTs. Between his three point shooting, ability in transition, and his growing comfort on defense through the year, Michigan got just what it needed out of the freshman version of Walton.
Walton's offensive rating, eFG%, and assist rate were all ranked in the lower tiers of the top-500 nationally. His turnover rate and assist rate don't look great, but keep in mind that freshmen point guards who can keep those numbers even or slightly positive often see a good improvement as second year players. Walton's freshman stats are encouraging.
- Transition: One place that Walton looked comfortable early on last year is getting the ball in transition. His strong defensive rebounding rate (12.4, which was second out of all backcourt players behind Caris LeVert) allowed Walton to get the ball and turn up court quickly, and his speed, passing ability, and knack for finishing through contact helped him excel in the wide open floor. Michigan isn't a team that runs a lot, but it has been very able to use the fast break selectively to devastate opposing defenses. Walton's skill for navigating the break is a big part of this.
- The free throw line: Whether it being in transition or end of the game situations, Walton was one of the better players on the team at getting to the free throw line. This could be a big deal if he can continue to improve on it. Michigan is not a team that draws a lot of fouls, so having someone that can get into the lane, make contact, and get to the line can help aid the offense quite a bit in efficiency. Walton was third on the team behind Stauskas and Morgan last season with a FT Rate of 41.0 (would have been fourth behind McGary...c'est la vie). Walton also hit just shy of 80% of his free throws. He found ways to get to the line and to make it count.
- Three-point shooting: Like Spike, Walton proved to be a big asset for kick out threes. He has 105 attempts and made 41% of them with 83% being assisted.
- Assist/Turnover ratio: One of the issues that John Beilein and his staff will look to improve in Walton's game is ball security as he takes on a larger role. The freshman wasn't too careless with the ball, sporting a TO Rate just under 20.0, which was in line with Trey Burke and Spike Albrecht's freshman year numbers and well below Darius Morris's 27.0 TORate as a freshman. Walton's freshman assist to turnover ratio was a solid 2/1, and that tends to be one area of improvement from year one to year two for point guards in this offense. However, Michigan will look to Walton to not only drop his turnover rate, but to do so while taking on a bigger role in the offense. Michigan is going to need someone to step in for Stauskas and initiate more of Michigan's offense. Walton seems like the best candidate, and in doing so he will have a good opportunity to improve those numbers while taking on a larger role in the offense. This is one weakness that I very much believe will become a strength because of natural growth, but it is a weakness insofar as Walton has yet to prove he can be a central player in this offense.
- Initiating Offense: Thus leads us to the biggest question: how well can Walton help take over the offensive load that Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III shouldered last year. Michigan's offense was the most efficient in the nation due in no small part to the varied options it had for creating shots. Michigan trusted the ball in the hands of all three of its primary wing players and used them to create shots and open up passes for threes or layups. Caris LeVert remains, but the offense will need another go-to setup man. This is Walton's time to shine in that role.
Expecting Derrick Walton to make a Trey Burke/Darius Morris level leap to certifiable NBA prospect is crazy. However, at this point it seems like not expecting that leap is stupid.
Walton has all of the tools to be a great point guard. His speed, size and athleticism have already shown up in his transition game and on the boards. His shooting bonafides are there after a freshman year in which he was near the top of the team in both three-point and free throw shooting percentage. He even has a knack for getting to the line at the same or better rate than the rest of the team.
This season will be about connecting the dots. Turning that athleticism into shutdown defense and fixing the hiccups in his game so that as he takes on more of the offensive load his efficiency stays high and his turnovers drop. We saw it happen with Morris then Burke. It even happened for Spike last year, albeit in a smaller way. Now is Walton's time, and expecting him to increase his ORtg by a few points while jumping into the low 20's in usage rate is reasonable. A Burkian leap (mid to high 120's ORtg, mid to high 20's usage rate) is a best case scenario that Michigan probably doesn't even need to happen with all the other talent in the backcourt. Although the thought of a Burke-like season paired with LeVert and Zak Irvin on the wings is tantalizing to consider. It is also a distinct possibility given what we know about Walton and this staff's ability to develop talent.
If Derrick Walton becomes Michigan's next player to jump into the NBA draft lottery, somebody better give LaVall Jordan a big raise.