Michigan's Derrick Walton Jr. says, 'I'm just being more assertive, and my teammates are giving me the go-ahead to be assertive, and it's helping us as a team.' (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — In the waning minutes of possibly Michigan’s biggest game of the season, U-M needed a basket.
Nik Stauskas, the team’s leading scorer, was an option, as were Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III. Maybe next on the list was freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr.
Walton had totaled two points in the previous two games and was coming off a stunted outing of only three minutes in the previous game against Iowa. But against Michigan State, Walton had scored the Wolverines’ first points of the game on a 3-pointer and the last three of the half, on a three-point play, keeping them within reach.
In the final six minutes, Walton scored more than half of Michigan’s points, finishing with a career-best 19 points, including 9 of 10 free throws in the final three minutes.
“There were many memorable plays, but doing it here in front of this crowd with these guys makes it that much more special,” Walton said Saturday. “I’m just being more assertive, and my teammates are giving me the go-ahead to be assertive, and it’s helping us as a team.”
Many of the Wolverines pointed to Walton’s improvement and growing up before their eyes as one of the reasons Michigan has won its last nine games. It’s not the first time he’s been in a crucible in a big game, but he’s learning how to come through in the clutch.
“We throw him in the game and he has to make the foul shots to beat Florida State or make foul shots in several games; sometimes he was successful and sometimes he wasn’t,” coach John Beilein said. “In that environment, for him to do that, it bodes well for who he is. Thank goodness it didn’t go the other way, especially for a kid from this state.
“That would creep up on him for a long time. It showed he’s got great confidence and I don’t think that will change now.”
The breakthrough in the rivalry game makes Michigan (15-4, 7-0 Big Ten) formidable because it provides another scoring option on a team that already has several in Stauskas, LeVert and Robinson. They combine for 44 points per game, in addition to Walton’s 8.3 points and 2.7 assists.
For Beilein, it’s a bonus that Walton is coming around after struggling offensively in mid-December. It’s just part of the growth process in learning the toughest position on the court for a freshman.
“Any freshman point guard, if he’s that good that he doesn’t have tremendous growth in that freshman year, he’s probably too good,” Beilein said Monday on the Big Ten coaches teleconference. “It’s incredible what they have to go through between spending the summer on campus, all the weight training, all the film sessions; there’s no way high school or AAU can put them through it.”
Walton has been through the paces this season, after Trey Burke’s departure for the NBA left a gaping hole at point guard.
Sophomore Spike Albrecht has played the role of both backup and tutor, helping in Walton’s development. When Walton had flu-like symptoms against Iowa, Albrecht held down the position, with seven points, seven rebounds and four steals in 35 minutes.
In practice, Albrecht gives Walton plenty of one-on-one attention during scrimmages.
“He will stand on the sideline and coach Derrick every minute through that and when he comes into the game, that’s when Derrick gets his rest or we’ll put the two of them together,” Beilein said.
“Spike has a good understanding of our system and he’s been really helpful to Derrick.”
With all Walton has gone through in his first 19 college games and having to take over Burke’s spot, it is all starting to slow down. But part of the reason it’s working is that he’s had a willingness to learn and treat the good games just as he does the bad.
“He’s been really good at taking it day-to-day,” Beilein said. “He has a mentality of ‘I’m making mistakes but I’ll be better tomorrow, coach.’
“It’s shown sometimes that he’s really gaining confidence but it’s also showing on some occasions that he still is learning. At any rate, he has a chance to be a very good leader and quarterback for this team for a long time.”
For Jordan Morgan, U-M’s only senior, who has seen the likes of Darius Morris and Trey Burke — both of whom are in the NBA — the strides that Walton made in the win over MSU at the Breslin Center are not just positives for this year, but also for beyond.
“It’s big. Derrick played a great game, obviously. Not just getting the win, but the way we got it, seeing that atmosphere and what it’s like to have to battle like that,” Morgan said.