With the departure of Wooden Award winner Trey Burke, Michigan had some big shoes to fill coming into this season. As a freshman in 2011-12, Burke led the Wolverines to a Big Ten championship and brought them to the national championship game last season as a sophomore.
The void left behind by Burke wasn’t just a hole, it was a crater.
Enter freshman Derrick Walton Jr.
It was impossible to expect Walton to fill in the massive shoes Burke left. But instead of filling the shoes, Walton is creating his own.
At the beginning of the season, it was evident that Walton was still adjusting to the college game. He struggled to get in-sync with head coach John Beilein‘s complicated offense and it looked as if he was a step behind everyone on the court. As a result, Michigan struggled, losing tough games to Iowa State, Charlotte, Duke and Arizona.
But over the course of the Big Ten slate, that has changed. Dramatically.
Even with the loss of All-American center Mitch McGary, the young Wolverines have gelled together and have stormed to the top of the Big Ten standings. A big part of the recent success has to be credited to the growth of the freshman point guard.
In Tuesday night’s contest at Ohio State, Walton grew up right before our eyes. He handled the hostile Value Center environment, a tough place to play for every opposing player, like a fifth-year senior. He finished the game with 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. The 10-rebound performance proves that Walton is not afraid to bang away with the bulky trees down in the paint.
Not only is he not afraid to do battle with big men, Walton is money down the stretch. A few weeks ago in East Lansing, Walton nailed 5-of-6 from the free throw line in the final two minutes to help seal the deal in Michigan’s road victory over arch-rival Michigan State.
You can tell a lot about a player’s mental toughness when you ask him to step up in clutch situations. Based on what we’ve seen, Walton has already achieved that and more.
Sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III may be one key to Michigan’s tournament success, but Walton is the master key. As we witnessed in East Lansing and Columbus, the Wolverines don’t need Robinson to light up the world to come out on top. In both of those crucial matchups against the Spartans and Buckeyes, it was the freshman Walton that led the way. Despite Robinson’s inability to live up to preseason expectations, the point guard position is much more essential to the success of Beilein’s program. See last year for proof.
Beilein has had a knack for recruiting excellent floor generals in his stint at Michigan. Most notably, he brought in Darius Morris, who led the Wolverines to a surprising NCAA tournament berth in 2010-11, and of course Burke. Now, it is Walton’s turn to be Michigan’s next great point guard. As a highly-rated recruit out of Chandler Park Academy in Harper Woods, MI, he has the tools to become an elite point guard in the Big Ten during his time in maize and blue.
With the possibility of a Big Ten championship on the horizon, we may see Walton become an elite player just in the coming weeks. And luckily for Michigan, it could come just in time for a deep run in the NCAA tournament.