Los Angeles — Derrick Walton Jr. has been surrounded with NBA-caliber talent since his days at Michigan. From Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III to Duncan Robinson, Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson, there has been no shortage of talent.
As an undrafted rookie with the Miami Heat in 2017-18, taking some cues from Dwyane Wade and a veteran roster that reached the playoffs.
Last season was different, though. Instead of Wade, Goran Dragic and familiar faces, it was Zach LeDay, Edgaras Ulanovas and Nigel Hayes with B.C. Zalgiris in Lithuania. When his playing time diminished there, he signed with Alba Berlin in February.
Getting back to the NBA seemed out of focus, but Walton didn’t lose hope.
Then came an opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers in the Summer League. Walton stuck, earning the final spot on one of the best rosters in the league, including NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Lou Williams.
What a difference a year makes.
“Honestly, not to be arrogant, but I was like I know (I can get back to the NBA). I just felt it. I felt like the one year of experience that I did get, I learned a lot from it,” Walton said Thursday before the Clippers’ matchup against his hometown Pistons. “I think it gave me a kickstart, when I came back (to the NBA) because I was still considered a young guy, so there's a lot of stuff that I knew wouldn’t work.
“I just tried to apply everything I knew that would work and pretty much, it’s gotten me in a great spot here.”
With injuries at point guard, the Clippers have leaned on Walton, 24, who has gotten more consistent playing time in December and has a bigger opportunity because of a wrist injury that guard Patrick Beverley sustained.
Walton could have a bigger role as the backup point guard until Beverley returns. He showed some flashes with a career-best 10 points, including a pair of 3-pointers, in Tuesday’s victory over the Sacramento Kings.
“He had a big night for us in Sacramento. Every time he’s out there, he’s productive,” George said. “I have nothing but good things to say about Derrick and what he’s been bringing to this team.”
The Clippers are one of the favorites to win the NBA title and with a hot start, they have lived up to expectations. That Walton could end up in such an ideal situation didn’t seem likely when he was toiling with Zalgiris, where he averaged 8.4 points and 4.4 assists.
Alba Berlin reached the Bundesliga finals with Walton, but he felt like the road would lead back to the NBA, or at least an opportunity in the Gatorade League.
“Everything is an opportunity, I think I’ve got a great opportunity here. I said I've always been very humble but very confident in what I can do — that’s the approach I've always had,” Walton said. “Being able to just be in the fire, I feel like I can always just figure things out when I'm out there because I've been playing this game for a long time.
“I've been playing off feel, I had a really good college coach that prepared me for a lot of stuff, so a lot of stuff that I see and experience I've seen already and I really don't get rattled; I just roll with the punches and sometimes I see it before it happens.”
John Beilein, who coached Walton at Michigan, is now leading the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the Wolverines’ pro-style offense, featuring countless pick-and-rolls, has been good preparation for Walton in the NBA.
“We run the exact same stuff, just in different variations; we kind of just get to it differently. We just start it differently and it ends up in the same thing,” Walton said. “I was very fortunate; I had very good mentors growing up that always, put me in NBA situations and stuff like that. I just, I'm just really blessed to be around a lot of people that knew the game really well and I was always a sponge, so I think I always knew that I will be able to apply it, so I just always try to soak up as much information as I can.”
Walton’s father was his high school coach at Harper Woods Chandler Park Academy, and Walton has gotten some good counsel from a cadre of former NBA point guards, including Clippers coach Doc Rivers and assistant coaches Tyronn Lue and Sam Cassell.
“It’s crazy because you never second-guess it; you have no doubt about anything — you know whatever they tell you is 100 percent true because it's someone who has seen and done it,” Walton said. “When Lue tells me something, it's, ‘Yes, Coach,’ and with Sam, it’s the same thing. I just trust those guys because I feel like they've been in a fire, they've seen pretty much everything from both sides of coaching and point guard, so it’s a luxury on my part.”
Another familiar face has helped Walton as well: former Pistons great Chauncey Billups, who is a TV analyst for Clippers. Walton grew up watching Billups and the "Goin’ to Work" championship team, and getting to meet one of the players he admired brought a laugh.
“I told Chauncey I watched him as a kid and I was Detroit fan growing up,” he said. “It’s cool. Guys like my dad thought he was so good and so cool and then the city of Detroit embraced him and appreciated what they did in 2003-2004. Meeting him in person was surreal because it’s someone you grew up watching.”
Los Angeles certainly is a lot different than Lithuania, but Walton just wants to keep playing well and keep those familiar faces around him.