With the NBA Draft more than a month away, four Wolverines are hoping to turn their professional dreams into reality.
Moritz Wagner, D.J. Wilson and Derrick Walton Jr. each earned NBA Combine invites and will be heading to Chicago for the six-day showcase that begins Tuesday. Zak Irvin was left off the invitee list that included more than 60 players.
While Wagner and Wilson haven’t hired an agent and have left the door open to return to Michigan for their junior seasons, Walton and Irvin have exhausted all four years of eligibility and are looking to continue their careers at the professional level.
But both will have plenty to prove.
Walton finished his career with a flourish, averaging career highs in scoring (15.5 points), assists (4.9), field-goal percentage (43.6 percent), 3-point shooting (42.2 percent), free-throw shooting (87.6 percent) and minutes (34.8). He played as well as any player in the nation during the second half of the season, scoring at least 20 points nine times and recording five double-doubles as he led Michigan to the Sweet 16.
Irvin helped carry the offense during the early portion last season before hitting a rough patch and closing out the year with several clutch performances, highlighted by his 16- and 19-point showings against Oklahoma State and Oregon, respectively, in the NCAA Tournament.
Irvin also showcased his all-around game at the Portsmouth Invitational — a showcase for college seniors — in April, averaging 10.3 points on 50-percent shooting, 6.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.3 steals over three games. He also had a pre-draft workout with the Utah Jazz last week.
Yet, neither Walton nor Irvin appear in the latest mock drafts from ESPN’s Chad Ford and DraftExpress.com.
But Irvin is listed as a second-round pick (No. 49 overall) by DraftSite.com.
Four men who would have a good idea of where Walton and Irvin would fit into the NBA landscape weighed in to The News.
According to Tim McCormick, a former Michigan standout in the 1980s who serves an ESPN college basketball analyst, Walton and Irvin will have a chance to land on a team, but it might take some time.
“I think that they would be more along the lines of get into a good D-League program and find out what the program is about and keep developing,” McCormick said. “It’s such a different game in a lot of ways when you go to the D-League. I don’t think people realize how good those players are, how hard they play, how many great athletes just are missing something whether it’s a mid-range game, whether it’s the explosiveness, whether it’s keeping your man in front of you.
“I think that Derrick and Zak have a couple of small holes that they need to fill in a little bit.”
McCormick said despite Walton’s size (6-foot-1, 190 pounds), small, quick point guards who can create on offense — like Celtics star Isaiah Thomas — have become coveted and teams might be hesitant to pass on.
McCormick said while Walton needs more seasoning, his postseason performance should garner him a chance to lead a team in the Summer League.
Don't underestimate them
ESPN’s Dan Dakich and Dick Vitale watch as much college basketball as anyone. But Dakich, who’s son Andrew played for four years with Walton and Irvin, likely has an edge over any NBA scout in the number of games he’s seen the Michigan duo play.
Dakich estimates he has watched Irvin play about 150 games and sees an opportunity for Irvin in the NBA.
“The one thing I’ve always thought about him and Derrick is you can’t underestimate them,” Dakich said. “For Zak, it’s going to be about shooting and finding the right team. (The best fit) is a team that’s looking for a guy athletic enough but is also a shooter. There are a lot of guys who can do what he does, but he has a commodity. He has to get with a team to who values (his defense).”
Dakich also sees Walton as a potential fit for an NBA team, but the key, if neither of them is drafted, getting an agent who will seek out the right fit on an NBA roster, or in the D-League, to start.
Generally, college seniors don’t get top billing as prospects, but Dakich thinks that experience cold make Walton and Irvin more appealing.
“Because of their personalities, they’ll get a shot,” Dakich said. “Someone will bring them into camp and that will push them. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Derrick or Zak get a shot with an NBA team.”
While Vitale, a former Detroit Mercy coach and a legendary broadcaster at ESPN, hasn’t seen Irvin and Walton as many times as Dakich the last four years, he still has seen them plenty. He agrees there’s talent there but definitely some room to grow.
“For Walton, it’s a chance to upgrade his status (at the Combine),” Vitale said. “It’s tough when you’re going out there with so many players and having to make your mark, but he did it in the Big Ten, which says something. (At the Combine) you’ve got to fight for survival and that’s important when you’re being evaluated. You’ve got to step up and be impressive. There are many situations where that’s happened, where people didn’t think highly of someone and they became contributors.
“Walton had a good year, but Zak Irvin was up and down. It’s going to be about if they can impress somebody and ultimately if someone will give them a chance to make a roster.”
Ryan Blake, an NBA consultant, said both Walton and Irvin already have improved their potential draft stock since the end of the college season. By getting an invitation to the Combine, Walton will get to do 5-on-5 work with some top prospects and maybe impress a scout or executive with that spotlight on him.
“It’s tough to get opportunities to play in front of teams,” Blake said. “The more times you can get in front of them and interview, the more doors open.”
Irvin has opened some eyes with his performance at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a showcase for college seniors. Though Irvin wasn’t invited to the combine in Chicago, he’s already made an impression.
“(Irvin’s) not out of mind, because he came to Portsmouth and averaged 10 points and he came and played extremely hard,” Blake said. “When you have someone with that size and he can pass, that’s value. We have players where none is going to make an NBA team by offensive abilities — it’s defense.
“The feedback we got from NBA teams is that he’s going to get a lot of calls and interest. It may not be on the draft board, but may be summer league or training camp.”
For both Walton and Irvin, who are projected as either late second-round picks or might go undrafted, the path to the NBA might not be through the draft, but through the Development League, where many, such as former Indiana point guard Yogi Ferrell, have made their mark.
“(Irvin) may improve on outside shooting and staying in front. He’s going to have those opportunities if he goes in the D-League,” Blake said. “If he doesn’t get picked up, that would be my advice for him, to learn from NBA coaches and systems.”
While the Combine is a one-stop shop to gauge a prospect’s stock, it’s not the end — with a good or bad performance. It can confirm what scouts already know or offer a chance to dispel the scouting report.
“There are always questions on weaknesses. Walton struggled a little because of his size and may not have the quickest lateral movement, but this is an avenue where he can confirm or discredit those concerns,” Blake said. “In this environment, in 5-on-5 — that’s the thing that really shows what kind of basketball player he is, not individual workouts.
“When he can see plays develop, find hot hand, push the ball and run halfcourt the way he can, that’s what we want to see and where he’ll do well.
“When you’re in a 5-on-5 game situation, playing to win, it’s also stuff you do on the court and away from the court.”
Rod Beard contributed