Though the NCAA Tournament still is in progress, Michigan's season ended with a loss to top seed Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. Therefore, it is time to review and grade how the Wolverines performed last season. I began this process by evaluating how John Beilein handled what he called a "very unique" season. It's time to evaluate the players, starting with Derrick Walton.
Derrick Walton Jr.
No. 10 | Sophomore | 6-0 | 185 lbs. | Chandler Park Academy HS | Detroit, Mich.
Researching and writing Derrick Walton's evaluation made me want to break things.
This was supposed to be a breakout year for Walton. This was supposed to be the year that the former top-50 recruit shined in a prominent role. Though he was Michigan's starting point guard last season, he moonlighted as a spot-up shooter because the offense ran through Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert. He excelled in that secondary role, draining 41 percent of his threes, but we did not know if he could be a significant contributor on offense. This was the year that we would see whether he could be a go-to player. This was the year that we would see if he would make the major leap between his freshman and sophomore years like point guards Darius Morris and Trey Burke before him.
We saw glimpses of such a leap in the opening weeks of the season. In Walton's first four games, he was an all-around scorer for Michigan. He averaged 14.8 points per game, and he did it in a variety of ways. Not only was he sniping from downtown where he made 54.5 percent of his threes, he was utilizing his quickness and excellent vertical to finish at the rim where he converted 66.7 percent of his shots and earn trips to the free-throw line -- he attempted 28 free throws to 30 field goals in those first four games. Further, despite being listed at six feet, Walton was an asset on the defensive glass and had one of the best rebounding rates among Big Ten guards. He appeared to have taken the next big step.
But we never had a chance to see if the major leap was fact or fiction. Walton injured his toe in the next game against Villanova and was not the same the rest of the season. The injury -- whether it was a sprained toe or turf toe -- left Walton limping up and down the floor and robbed him of his explosiveness. In the 14 games he appeared in after he injured his toe, Walton averaged only 9.6 points per game and posted an offensive rating above 100 in only five of them. Why? His shooting numbers plummeted, particularly around the rim. His eFG% in those 14 games was a putrid 39.4 percent because he converted only 15-of-54 (27.8 pct.) two-pointers. Walton had an aversion to penetrating into the paint after he injured his toe, and, on the rare occasions when he did attack the rim, he lacked the explosiveness and athleticism needed to finish the job. Instead, he resorted to being a spot-up shooter like the year before, but, this time, he was not as effective, making 32.8 percent of his threes. Walton had become a shell of himself.
Walton's health deteriorated to a point where John Beilein decided to rest him, even after he just given an inspiring effort in a primetime home clash against Wisconsin. It was announced that Walton would be out for the "foreseeable future" with the hope that he would be able to recover before the season ended. However, the sight of Walton in a walking boot and on crutches a week later before Michigan's road game at Michigan State was a bad sign for those expecting a swift recovery. Instead, his timeline for a return continued to be pushed back and pushed back until the Big Ten Tournament came and went without Walton stepping on the floor. He missed the final 12 games of the year.
It was a lost season for Walton, and one that infuriates me. What opened as a season of so much promise for Walton turned into an injury-riddled disaster. He tried to play through the pain, which I admire, but it was clear that he wasn't the same player that he was in the opening weeks of the season. He didn't have that explosiveness. He didn't have that agility. He didn't have that lift on his jump shot. And he never had the chance to have the breakout sophomore season that Michigan fans thought he was on the verge of having.
And what makes it worse is that Michigan played like the top-25 team they were predicted to be when Walton was healthy in those opening weeks. They took care of business against Hillsdale, Bucknell, and Detroit, before leading the entire way against future No. 8 seed Oregon and taking future No. 1 seed Villanova down to the wire on a neutral site. There were other reasons for Michigan's tumble this season, but, if Walton did not injure his toe in the game against Villanova and played the entire season at full health, maybe -- just maybe -- Michigan's season could have been salvaged somewhat.
But we will never know.
Instead, all Michigan can hope for is that Walton will regain the form he had in his first few games this season once he rests and permits his toe to be healthy. Once that happens, he may have that breakout season as a junior next year. And, in the meantime, we can reflect on the few bright moments he delivered this season -- like this clutch three:
But I still want to break things when I ponder what could have been for Walton this year.
Final Grade: INC