January 31, 2014
Walton is growing up quickly
Questioning whether rookie point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. has improved through his first half-year of college basketball is like asking if Atlanta drivers panic in snow. It's a matter of degree, and Walton remains a cool customer in the process.
Everyone points to Walton's signature game thus far, the road warrior-win at Michigan State. And there's no question, his 19 points, six rebounds, four assists, one turnover and 9-for-10 close-out shooting performance at the free throw line will serve as a touchstone for Walton and a lasting memory for Michigan fans.
He wasn't just a one-hit wonder against the floor-slapping, blister-besieged, walking wounded of East Lansing. Walton is averaging 8.6 points per game overall, with 55 assists set against 37 turnovers. But in the step up to Big Ten play, he's averaging 9.9 points, with 22 assists and 12 turnovers.
Walton has also demonstrated more components to his game, like he did when scored 14 against Purdue Thursday night. The rookie grabbed three rebounds, tossed off three assists and grabbed two steals, while impressing head coach John Beilein with a pull-up jumper.
"The two pull-up jump shots he had, we didn't see even earlier [in the year] in practice," Beilein said. "It's something he's been working on, and LaVall Jordan does a great job with him. Those were shots No. 3 [Trey Burke] used to hit last year for us over and over again. That's important, being able to hit that midrange jump shot.
"You're not going to take it to the rim too much on [Purdue seven-footer A.J.] Hammons. He's going to beat that stuff off the boards, so you've got to pull up and shoot it in. His growth of confidence in what he's doing, what the right plays are, has been nothing short of amazing based on what an 18-year-old has to do."
Walton did take it to Hammonds in a coast-to-coast rush for a layup at the halftime buzzer of Michigan's 75-66 win over Purdue. A Boilermakers' foul at the other end wiped out two Purdue free throws, and Walton's mad dash put U-M up at the half, 37-29, instead of the potential 35-31 split.
Purdue coach Matt Painter insisted that sequence, combined with Michigan outplaying his team early in the second half, doomed the Boilermakers.
"It was a big momentum swing, because the game was kind of back and forth," Walton said. "For us to get that last bucket before the buzzer sounded was big for us.
"We usually work on that in practice, so I was confident about me getting the shot off in time. It was all about finishing the shot."
Walton has been finishing shots more and more in Big Ten play. Here's a look at what he's done so far, excluding the Iowa game, when he played just three minutes due to the flu.
Walton admits the Michigan State game gave him an extra injection of swagger, one that he intends to build on moving forward.
"It was a big confidence boost for me," he said. "As an individual, I just wanted to come out and be aggressive, knowing it was successful in the last game. I did so tonight and it helped us."
Plus, he's a freshman guard playing on a first-place Big Ten team that hasn't lost in the league. He is surrounded by players who reached the NCAA title game a mere nine months ago.
It's exactly why he signed on, and there's no room for home slip-ups or youth excuses.
"No team wants to lose on their home floor," Walton said. "We took the initiative to come out and be really aggressive, try to be really defensively sound and get the easiest shots each possession."
It gets harder come Sunday. Assembly Hall bears no resemblance to Crisler Center in its love and respect for the Wolverines. At the same time, Walton has been to Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Kohl Center, Williams Arena and the Breslin Center.
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