Ann Arbor — It’s not how Derrick Walton Jr. envisioned his story unfolding.
A highly touted point guard out of Harper Woods Chandler Park Academy and Michigan Mr. Basketball runner-up in 2013, Walton came to Michigan with lofty expectations.
He attended nearly every home game at Crisler Center during his senior year of high school and watched sophomore sensation Trey Burke, the 2012-13 national college player of the year, dazzle as he led the Wolverines to the NCAA national championship game.
When Burke bolted for the NBA, Walton thought he’d be able to step in and follow Burke’s footsteps as a freshman.
It didn’t pan out quite as Walton had hoped. Surrounded by future NBA draft picks his first year, he took a backseat before injuries cut his sophomore season short and thrust him into the leading role as a junior.
In the second half on his senior campaign, everything is finally coming together. Walton is in midst of the best stretch of his career — averaging 20.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists over the past eight games — and living up to his own expectations as he spearheads a desperate Michigan team’s fight for its NCAA Tournament life, which continues tonight against No. 11 Wisconsin.
“Everybody has their own path,” Walton said last week, reflecting on his career at Michigan. “Trying to compare your path or journey to somebody else’s just leads to disappointment.
“I feel like God has put me in this position and pretty much made me go through the things that I had to go through — some being harder than others just makes me appreciate it a lot more.”
Finding a balance
With Burke’s shadow lingering after his early departure, Walton knew the comparisons were inevitable, but he embraced the pressure. In fact, he was confident he would be able to duplicate what Burke had accomplished in his two seasons.
“That was the plan,” Walton said. “I was really excited watching him … just idolizing and trying to emulate everything he did.
“I felt like I could do exactly what he did and I felt like I had the talent and I had the ability. It didn’t work out that way.”
Instead of being the star of the show, Walton served as a member of the supporting cast. With Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Caris LeVert — all future NBA players — Walton didn’t need to be an explosive scorer who did it all but rather a pass-first guard who got everyone involved.
“It was hard to find an even balance of being myself and being the guy I needed to be for the team,” Walton said. “It was just weird. I felt my role was to come in and just help not spoon-feed guys but help them get shots and put them in the best position to be successful. Then when the game got tight, those guys would bring it home for us.”
As the season progressed, Walton admitted he’d browse the internet, see stories comparing him and Burke and “it got to me at times.” If he had a good game, people would claim he was better than Burke and if he didn’t, others would say he didn’t measure up, which led to him second-guessing himself.
Still, Walton ended up proving he could fit in and be a viable piece, playing all 37 games with 36 starts and helping the Wolverines make another deep postseason run to the Elite Eight.
“Growing up I played for AAU teams and we had a ton of good players,” Walton said. “A lot of times I would find myself deferring, but everyone knew I had the talent to still lead and be one of the best players.
“Coming in it was kind of the same thing. We had NBA draft picks pretty much at all four spots and I got the easy job, just feed those guys, feed those guys, make open shots, be aggressive in transition. But I think that kind of hindered me going forward because the following year it wasn’t that same roster. … It was more so adjusting and really just coming in and accepting that I’m the guy.”
Playing through pain
By the time next season rolled around, there were plenty of new faces and not nearly as many familiar ones. Gone were Stauskas, Robinson and McGary, who all turned pro, and in came six freshmen.
With voids to fill and more shots to go around, Walton was poised for an expanded role. He was fully comfortable running coach John Beilein’s intricate offense, which was modified to run through the backcourt with him and LeVert, the two returning starters.
But in the fifth game of the season against Villanova, Walton was dealt a blow. He was diagnosed with turf toe after bending the big toe on his left foot so far back it damaged ligaments.
Walton hobbled through the pain over the next two months and compensated by avoiding putting pressure on his big toe. According to Beilein, the discomfort from jumping led to Walton forming bad habits and took away from his assertiveness.
“I remember just going to the basket and having the mindset once I get close to the basket there’s no way I’m going to be able to elevate exactly how I need to and still torque my body and finish it off the backboard,” Walton said. “Over the course of the season it just got worse. I found myself — when I got to the basket it was like I didn’t want to be there.
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish it just because I lacked the explosion and eventually it just trickled down to the confidence. Sometimes I would just settle because I know going down there, of course it hurts but I’m not helping the team.”
As Walton continued to play, the injury worsened. It got to the point that after each game, he would immediately rip off his shoe and run to the cold tub to numb the pain. Eventually, what began as a toe sprain turned into a foot injury when he chipped a bone in his third metatarsal.
After he gutted it out for 14 games, Walton’s season was shut down midway through Big Ten play in late January. Coupled with LeVert’s season-ending foot injury, it derailed the Wolverines’ season as they finished 16-16 and ended a streak of four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
“That’s the toughest year of basketball I’ve ever had,” Walton said. “I’ve never been hurt, never been out for an integral part of time.
“There were times where it was really dark for me, like I didn’t really know what was next. The injury was a setback and there’s no other way to describe it for me.”
Battle from within
Being sidelined humbled Walton. It helped him grow and mature. It made him hungrier. It made him a better student of the game. More importantly, it made him sit back and truly appreciate the opportunity that he has.
After months of rest and rehab, he worked tirelessly in the offseason and spent countless hours in the gym to get back to where he felt he was supposed to be. He was driven to prove he was one of the best point guards in the country.
But when it came time to show it his junior year, visions of his season-ending injury still lurked in his head.
“I wouldn’t say I was fully comfortable. I still had thoughts of going to the basket and pretty much hurting my foot again,” Walton said. “It was just like a psychological battle that I’ve had and I would say it held me back playing to the person I could be, just thinking about how bad it hurt to get hurt and not playing. I just didn’t want to go out there and risk it.
“It kind of messed up going into the game just thinking like if I go to the basket or if I get hit again, I know I’ve been hurt before and it could possibly happen again. Stuff like that was always in mind and at times it held me back and fluctuated my confidence.”
And while Walton was running the team as its point guard, LeVert was still the one leading it as its best player. But that changed when LeVert was shelved midway through the season with a leg injury.
Zak Irvin and Walton stepped up and took the reins, willing Michigan down the stretch and back into the NCAA Tournament before sputtering out in the first round.
“When (LeVert) went down, it just felt like everything, those responsibilities were dropped onto me and Zak,” Walton said. “It’s exactly how I wanted it to be. I want to be the guy that we kind of live and die with the decisions. That’s just the guy I am by nature, and it helped me prepare for this year.”
In his final act, everything Walton has gone through has led him to this moment to finally flourish.
He’s as confident as he’s been since his high school days. He doesn’t second-guess his abilities anymore. He doesn’t let the comparisons, the criticism and his own thoughts weigh him down.
And it shows in Walton’s play. He’s no longer a reluctant shooter, but an assertive scorer who attacks on ball screens, looks for his spots and does whatever the team needs.
All he’s concerned about is giving every ounce of effort every second he’s on the court.
“Just going out there with the free mind, not worrying about making a mistake, not worrying about anything other than making the right play when the play is right in front of me, I think that’s made the biggest difference,” Walton said. “I think that’s what has made me a great player over time is just playing off instinct and not thinking so much.
“Sometimes I ask the guys, ‘Am I being too unselfish?’ or ‘Am I being too selfish?’ The best response they give me is just be you. They got supreme confidence in me making the right play whether it’s for myself or the other guys. Knowing that those guys are behind me and I worked hard and have the confidence is all the difference for me.”
That difference has Walton playing at an elevated level over the last month. He has scored at least 20 points in five straight games — the first Wolverine to do so since Stauskas in 2013-14 — and earned his first Big Ten Player of the Week honor on Monday.
“I think a lot was thrust on him in a very early age. His freshman year it was great. He was the fifth or sixth piece of the puzzle and he did a great job with it,” Beilein said. “Then all of a sudden he’s like the first, second or third (piece). Then he’s injured and he has to watch and now he’s got to bounce back from that.
“He’s really handled it well and I’m really proud of what he’s been able to do here in the second semester.”
With six games left before the Big Ten tournament, time is running out for Michigan to solidify its case for an NCAA Tournament spot. But for Walton, it just makes for a more dramatic finish to be written.
“I haven’t had the most ideal storybook (career),” Walton said, “but I still think it’s going to be worth it in the end.”
Wisconsin at Michigan
Tip-off: Thursday, 7 p.m., Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: ESPN/950 AM
Records: No. 11 Wisconsin 21-4, 10-2 Big Ten; Michigan 16-9, 6-6
Outlook: Derrick Walton Jr. needs two rebounds to become the first Wolverine with 1,000 career points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists.