Derrick Walton Jr. picked up some seasoning and intangibles during four years at Michigan, which spurred his impressive play during Orlando Summer League.
Summer League is often the first chance for many young basketball players to generate buzz at the professional level. Lottery selections and other drafted players typically garner the most attention, as should be expected.
It is also a chance for undrafted players to get some of the attention their drafted counterparts already have by default. Former Michigan Wolverines standout point guard Derrick Walton Jr. is one of those undrafted players trying to fight his way into the league without the benefit and security of a draft selection.
At the recently concluded Orlando Summer League, he surprised many observers with strong showings in several games. Enough to generate plenty of NBA buzz.
He might be surprising many people, but he is not surprising everyone. Those who watched him during his senior year at Michigan might tell you he is just picking up where he left off in college.
The four-year college basketball player is a rare breed in the modern NBA. But Walton is one of them.
He was a late bloomer of sorts, only coming into his own during his senior year. Staying that long at Michigan was crucial for him to enter the draft with at least a puncher’s chance of playing in the NBA.
His long college tenure gives him a readiness advantage over the plethora of young players drafted ahead of him (for reference, a record 16 freshmen were selected in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft) and allowed him to become perhaps the best point guard in the Big Ten during the 2017 season.
Walton’s relative maturity was not lost on Orlando Magic assistant coach Chad Forcier, who remarked the difference between someone at 19 and 22 years old is vast, no matter the profession.
He showed that averaging 10.0 points per game and 3.5 assists per game in four games during Summer League.
Walton controls games not through his size (that 6-foot-1 listing is very generous) or his athleticism (he ranked in the bottom half of guards at the 2017 Combine for standing leap, max vertical, shuttle run, lane agility, and three-quarter sprint), but through a variety of other skills that might be called “old-man game” at your local rec center.
Learning from Michigan head coach John Beilein for four years helped Walton develop a polished feel for conducting an offense. Particularly in the pick-and-roll where he uses changes of pace effectively to create separation and attack angles.
Given how central the pick-and-roll is in the modern NBA, Walton’s seasoned skills in the pick-and-roll alone give him a sizable advantage over many of the youngsters who might have been drafted based more on potential than output and established skill.
He is also a willing and physical defender who makes up for his lack of height with a grit that is hard to teach. Advanced defensive metrics from college showed him to be an above-average defender during his time at Michigan, and everyone saw him harass Oklahoma State Cowboys’ guard, and 39th overall selection, Jawun Evans into an inefficient 10-for-26 shooting performance during Michigan’s first-round NCAA tournament win versus Oklahoma State.
Walton put up 26 points on 7-for-13 shooting from the field (including 6 of 9 from deep) and 11 assists in the matchup.
Stepping up to make big-time plays became a recurring theme for Walton down the stretch last season. Even on a team with first-round-caliber talents Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson, it was the senior Walton who was the team’s unquestioned leader. Particularly during the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, Walton repeatedly showed he was unafraid to take big shots during crunch time. He was also the team’s stabilizing force whenever things got hairy.
It was no surprise then Walton did the same kinds of things for the Magic during summer league.
"“We had a stretch there in the second half where they cut into our lead and it was starting to get a little bit tight,” coach Chad Forcier told Orlando Magic Daily after the Magic’s Summer League win over the Miami Heat. “[Walton]…ended up controlling the tempo and giving our team a sense of calm and hit a couple timely shots.”"
But perhaps the event that most demonstrates his character is how he responded to the Michigan basketball team’s plane crashing a day before the Big Ten Tournament was scheduled to start. Walton hurt his knee badly enough he needed stitches and was so shaken up physically and mentally he voted for the team to forfeit its game against the Illinois Fighting Illini.
But most of the other team members voted to play. So everyone flew to Washington, D.C. on the morning of the game, just a few hours before tip-off.
Walton, playing with an injury in addition to the emotional damage everyone on the team suffered from, led Michigan to a rout of Illinois in that first tournament game. He then proceeded to unleash an emotional Big Ten Tournament MVP campaign capped off by a sterling performance (22 points on 4 for 9 3-point shooting, seven assists and six rebounds) in Michigan’s title-clinching win against the Wisconsin Badgers.
Heading into the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan needed to perform well even to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Conference tournaments are already high-stakes affairs, but the stakes were even higher than usual for Walton and his Wolverines.
He came through like he often did during his collegiate career.
At the professional level, Walton’s physical limitations will put a ceiling on what he will be able to do. His best-case scenario is probably developing into a high-level backup point guard or a heady bench sparkplug with shooting range. His intangible qualities will intrigue some teams too.
In particular, the Magic might be interested in keeping him around. Rumors have swirled the team might extend a training camp invite to Walton. They might be willing to invest in him long term even after signing Shelvin Mack to a two-year contract.
His shooting ability (42.2 percent during his senior year) at the very least is something the Magic should greatly value. Walton possesses at least some upside incumbent point guards C.J. Watson and D.J. Augustin do not at this stage in their careers.
C.J. Watson is a candidate to be cut soon (his contract becomes guaranteed on July 10) and the Magic are likely shopping D.J. Augustin’s contract, so it is possible there will be an opportunity for Walton, although the recent acquisition of point guard Shelvin Mack complicates the logistics.
If the Magic indeed move Watson and Augustin, Walton would conceivably have a chance at a job as the third point guard on the Magic behind Shelvin Mack and starter Elfrid Payton (although Kalin Lucas of the Erie Bayhawks, the Magic’s G-League affiliate, might have something to say about that).
Many NBA teams now aim to employ several players who can create and direct offense. Magic head coach Frank Vogel likes to carry three point guards for that purpose. Lineups featuring two point guards are also en vogue. This furthers the need for teams to hold onto any players who can run the point.
With the Magic adding Mack, what is perhaps more likely for Walton is he will catch on with another team or start his career in Lakeland for the Lakeland Magic. He will earn chances here and there to play with the Magic, particularly if he is on a two-way contract.
But the Magic do not have any official advantages to retaining Walton’s services as of right now. Even though Walton played on the Magic’s Summer League team, other teams, if impressed enough with Walton, could offer him a better opportunity than what the Magic are offering.
Whether with the Magic or another team, Walton will probably get some looks from around the league if he impresses as much in training camp as he did in summer league. Everyone saw what he did there. He created a lot of fans within the organization and surely outside it.
While he does not possess the upside of a 19-year-old freshman jumping to the NBA, he does carry with him intangible leadership qualities a draftee often only has after staying in college for a while. Four years of polished skills also help.
Summer league showed there might be a market for players like Walton. While many were surprised at his ascent, he did not surprise anyone who watched him during his time in college.
He is just picking up where he left off.
Philip Rossman-Reich contributed to this report.