Orlando, Fla. — Just outside the locker room at Amway Center, Orlando Magic rookies Derrick Walton Jr. and Jonathan Isaac stood a few feet away from each other, addressing the media following their win in Sunday’s summer league game.
Isaac, almost a foot taller at 6-11, was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft after a standout freshman year at Florida State. Walton, an undrafted free agent, spent four years at Michigan, peaking during a surprising senior season.
In a bygone era, things would have been reversed.
Walton played 127 career games and helped lead the Wolverines to the Big Ten Tournament title this past season, plus a spot in the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. Isaac’s Seminoles made it to the second round of the ACC tournament and the second round in the NCAAs in March.
For years, the NBA has been geared more toward potential than production, a fact that Walton readily accepts, but he still is aiming to show that he belongs on an NBA roster. In three summer league games so far, he’s made his case, averaging 10.3 points, 3.3 assists and 2.7 rebounds.
What’s better is that he shot 61.5 percent from the field overall, with 80 percent (4-for-5) on 3-pointers, in a reserve role over the first two games. Walton received his first start on Monday and finished with eight points on 4-for-12 shooting (0-for-4 on 3-pointers), five assists and two rebounds in an 86-76 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
That’s opened some eyes, including Magic summer league coach Chad Forcier, who credited Walton with helping put away Sunday’s 81-68 win over the Miami Heat after nearly blowing a 21-point lead.
“He’s an impressive point guard and I’m a huge fan of his. We don’t get across the finish line (Sunday) without him. 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,” Forcier said. “He came up with a couple baskets and ended up controlling the tempo and giving our team a sense of calm and hit a couple timely shots.
“He’s been tremendous and he has a fan in me.”
Although he’s still a long shot to make it past summer league — the Magic have veteran point guards Elfrid Payton, D.J. Augustin and C.J. Watson on their roster — Walton is looking to have some good video for other teams to review and possibly get a training camp invitation or a spot in the Development League next year.
There wasn’t much question about Walton’s ability to lead a team after his senior season, but he has shown in his draft workouts, at the combine and in summer league that his shooting might have been a bit underrated.
“I have a lot of confidence in my abilities and every time I get a chance to go and play, I just go and showcase it,” Walton said. “Shooting has always been one of the things I’ve stood on and running a team and finding guys. I’m just going out here and trying to do it at the highest level.”
At about 6-1, Walton’s size can scare some teams away, but there’s plenty of precedent for smaller guards navigating their way through by playing tough defense and contributing in other ways.
And he’s rational with his projections, with the focus on just trying to be a rotational player and learning the ropes while working to hone his game and learn the NBA. A year ago, even being in the summer league and playing with the likes of Isaac didn’t seem plausible, but the same hard work that got him to this point can get him on an NBA roster.
“A guy of my size and stature is kind of a risk for most teams. I’m firm in my abilities and being able to show it is a relief,” Walton said. “It’s easy for me because I go out and do what I do and the doubters I don’t pay any mind.”
That level of maturity and counsel coupled with the coaching from Michigan’s John Beilein has carried Walton and helped him to see the bigger picture. Even in summer league, he’s helping the team with the poise and self-confidence that’s helping young players like Isaac, while also getting Walton a good look himself.
“You see that all the time — guys that have been through it longer and been coached longer and been in a lot of big situations and had to grow up as players and get smarter,” Forcier said. “It’s just natural maturity. The difference between 19 and 22 was meaningful for everyone, no matter what our trade is.”
With some luck, Walton’s trade might be in the NBA someday.