Jan. 15, 2014
By Jenny Herstein, U-M Public & Media Relations
That's all it took for Michigan's freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. to score the first five points of his career-high 16 on Tuesday night (Jan. 15). In an 80-67 win against Penn State, Walton gave the Wolverines their first eight points of the game -- on a three-pointer, a layup, and a few minutes later, another shot from behind the arc.
Walton's energetic opening to the game could hardly be seen as a surprise given his strong start to the Big Ten Conference portion of Michigan's season.
With a win against Penn State, the Wolverines now sit at 4-0 in the Big Ten. The freshman point guard has scored in double digits in each of his last three outings and is shooting 56.5 percent (13-for-23) in Big Ten play while connecting on 45.5 percent (5-for-11) of triples.
Walton is not only shooting well, but he is learning to be more aggressive, driving to the basket and creating opportunities. Over the course of the first four Big Ten games, he has made 18 trips to the free throw line.
"He's finding a balance between knowing what coach wants from him and using his instincts and doing the things that got him to Michigan," said assistant coach LaVall Jordan. "There's always a period -- for some guys longer than others -- where you're just trying to find a comfort level with when you can do things aggressively and when coach would rather you dial back and execute offense. I think he's finding that sweet spot pretty well."
"I think I've been shying away from contact a lot," added Walton, "so I made it a point to get to the basket and get to the line."
Understanding the balance between playing assertively and acting as a role player is one of many challenges that a first-year college point guard faces, especially in a conference like the Big Ten. Not only is the Big Ten one of the nation's best leagues, but it features a variety of teams with diverse styles of play. Against a different defense each night, Walton must figure out not only how he can score but how to best involve his teammates.
"I think that everybody plays us differently, but he's (Walton's) jet quick, and we want him to get (in the lane)," said head coach John Beilein. "He's shooting it well. He can get in there. Now, finding people is what he's getting better and better at."
"He prides himself on being a quick learner," said Jordan. "It's not an easy task, because you've got to be able to get the other guys involved. Nik (Stauskas) has been playing really well, Glenn's (Robinson III) getting more assertive and starting to get going, and Derrick's pretty much responsible for keeping those guys involved. And then, also, knowing that he has to keep defenses honest as well and making them guard him. And knowing what Coach Beilein is looking for at a certain time in the game. So, there's a lot coming at you.
"It's kind of like you're a quarterback, where you're playing and you've got to know when to run, and then know when to pass, and know when to audible. And that's a lot. But I think he's doing a great job with taking it in, asking the right questions and getting better every day."
With the variety of styles played in the Big Ten, Walton also has to learn to play different roles on the floor depending on what lineup Michigan chooses to best match its opponent. In several of Michigan's recent Big Ten games, including the game against Penn State, Walton and sophomore point guard Spike Albrecht played together, giving the Wolverines more ball-handlers on the court and giving Walton a chance to be more assertive.
"It gives us an opportunity to give Caris (LeVert) or Nik (Stauskas) a break, which is crucial," said Jordan. "Derrick is strong enough and athletic enough to guard a bigger guard, so we're really comfortable doing that. And then Spike knows the offense, and Derrick can be a little more aggressive in those periods in terms of attacking."
"I think it's just another option having two guys handling the ball who can make plays," added Albrecht.
This can be especially helpful against certain matchups. Penn State tried stalling Michigan's offense by defending them in the half court. Having multiple ball-handlers was a key for Michigan in this situation.
"They weren't really pressuring, they were just trying to take time off the clock so we had less time to get into our offense," said Albrecht. "You've just got to break the press and get into the offense quick -- that's what we tried to do."
With each game, Walton is learning how to better accomplish the myriad of tasks given to him as Michigan's point guard.
"The game's really starting to slow down for him. His confidence level is at an all-time high," said Albrecht. "He's shooting the ball well; he's playing great; he's making great decisions, and staying aggressive. I think that comes with experience out there."
Walton's improvement is made clear not only in his stats over the course of the early Big Ten season but also by his involvement in some of those games' biggest moments.
On the road against Nebraska on Jan. 9, Walton ended the first half in spectacular fashion, sinking a three-point buzzer-beater from half court to give the Wolverines a 33-30 advantage going into the locker room.
"I've been known to hit a couple half-court shots in my career, so I saw a couple seconds on the clock, and the ball was rolling, so I told them to take it out. I caught it at half court; I just shot it," said Walton.
"I actually kind of shot it like a jump shot, so it had good spin on it," he added. "So I was confident in the shot leaving my hand. As it left my hand I kind of knew it was going in."
However, the highlight-reel shot was not Walton's most important of the night. Late in the game, Walton took the ball down the court and hit a layup with just 21.8 seconds left on the clock. The shot proved to be the game-winner in Michigan's 71-70 victory over the Cornhuskers.
Whether it is by getting to the free throw line, finding a teammate or making a play late in the shot clock, Walton is coming into his role, and Michigan is a better team for it. Yet, at the end of the day, Walton always credits his teammates for helping him grow.
"My teammates keep me uplifted and keep encouraging me, so I have confidence going into each game," said Walton following the win over Penn State. "I just came out and played really well tonight. I credit all that to my teammates."