Niyo: UM sophomore Walton groomed to be a star

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — John Beilein was careful not to saddle Derrick Walton Jr. with any Trey Burke comparisons — or expectations — as a freshman point guard last year.

But this year, as Michigan prepares to tip off another season with a young roster and high hopes — consecutive trips to the Final Four and Elite Eight will do that for a basketball program — that reluctance seems to have faded.

"We're putting him in a lot of situations that we put Trey Burke in," Beilein said Thursday, mentioning the former national player of the year — unsolicited — when asked about Walton's expanding role as the primary ballhandler for the Wolverines.

It's a task Walton likely will share with junior guard Caris LeVert, a preseason all-Big Ten selection, on many nights. (Beilein estimated it'll be a "pretty even split" Thursday.) And the job of quarterbacking this Michigan basketball team will fall on junior Spike Albrecht, as well. He and Walton — the true point guards on the roster — "will be running the team," the coach said, leaving little doubt.

But with Nik Stauskas leaving early for the NBA, joined by classmates Glenn Robinson and Mitch McGary, there's a void to fill as Beilein tries to replicate an offense that set records for efficiency last season.

So the message the coach delivered to Walton this summer sounded a lot like the one he gave Stauskas the year before, with Burke and Tim Hardaway turning pro.

"Same speech," Beilein said.

'It's my time'

Walton, a former top-50 national recruit out of Detroit's Chandler Park Academy, spent much of his freshman season deferring to Stauskas, the eventual Big Ten player of the year. This year, he knows he'll still be playing second fiddle to LeVert, another potential NBA first-rounder.

"But we talk about it almost every day, just how important it is for me to be aggressive this year," Walton said of his coaches' new mandate. "Last year, it was their time to do things that they sat and watched other guys do. … Now I know it's my time to do more."

That's one reason he put in the time he did in the weight room this summer, much like Stauskas and LeVert a year ago.

He's stronger, and more explosive, by all accounts. And Walton says he's shooting the ball with better range and "with a lot more confidence." Which is a good thing, because Beilein has given him the green light, "encouraging" him to shoot more. Maybe even demanding it.

What remains to be seen is just how effective he'll be at a higher volume, though. Can Walton make the kind of leap for Michigan that Indiana's Yogi Ferrell did between his freshman and sophomore seasons?

Knack for the clutch

Walton, a member of the all-Big Ten freshman team, is talented enough to do it. And he's surrounded by enough shooters — Beilein's always going to find those — that an improved pick-and-roll game could open up all sorts of possibilities.

Walton, who was coached by his father, Derrick Sr., in high school, endured some growing pains learning Beilein's intricate system. And he admittedly worried about losing the starter's job after a slow start last fall. But he went on to average nearly 27 minutes as a freshman, and Walton (7.9 points) was surprisingly effective as a spot-up shooter, hitting better than 40 percent of his 3-point attempts. He made good decisions in transition, while also showing a knack for some clutch play.

"He's a competitive kid," assistant LaVall Jordan said. "And even last season, when he was in competitive situations, when it could determine us winning or losing, he stepped up and scored the ball for us."

The first real glimpse of it probably came in Puerto Rico, when Walton helped spark a second-half rally to beat Florida State. But it was on the road in the Big Ten where it really was noticeable — the winner at Nebraska, the season-high 19 points at Michigan State, the double-double at Ohio State.

And not that he hasn't noticed, but "we'll need more of that Derrick Walton this season," Jordan said. "For us to be the team we want to be, he's going to have to step up and play well."