In Michigan’s loss at Illinois a few weeks ago, Derrick Walton Jr. had a moment atypical of someone with his level of experience and composure.
After picking up an offensive foul, Walton spiked the basketball, picked up a technical foul and was forced to sit the rest of the first half on the bench with two fouls.
What transpired afterward made the senior guard’s actions even more regrettable. The Fighting Illini closed the half on a 15-2 run, as the Wolverines all but collapsed with one of their captains sidelined.
The debacle in Champaign may come to be the defining moment for Walton this season, but in a more positive way than the initial reaction showed.
Since that Illinois run, Walton has come to realize his multi-faceted value for Michigan.
“I’m just an example guy,” Walton said on Thursday. “I go out there and show how much it means to me. I’m pretty sure the guys will huddle around me and make sure they help me take care of business.”
In the five games that have followed the loss to the Fighting Illini, Walton has averaged 18.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. It’s been one of the strongest stretches of games he’s played in his Michigan career.
And the Wolverines have needed every point, every board and every assist the senior earned.
Walton made several adjustments in his game recently that benefit Michigan, as the Wolverines have been looking for consistency and creativity on both ends of the court.
Offensively, Michigan struggled to attack the basket off the dribble. The Wolverines had been sinking into a poor habit of settling for low-percentage shots on the perimeter, leading to wasted offensive possessions.
Walton fell victim to that trend — two-thirds of all the shots he had taken through the contest at Illinois were from behind the arc.
In Michigan’s last five games, though, Walton attacked the basket more than he has all season. His field-goal percentage rose three points to 41.6 percent, while the proportion of three-pointers he took per game decreased.
Most importantly to the Wolverines’ offense, Walton has been willing to absorb contact going to the hoop. He set a season high with nine free-throw attempts in Michigan’s win over Nebraska, and topped that over the weekend with 15 attempts, as he tried to carry the offense against Michigan State.
Walton made a visible effort to look tougher and more confident with his inside game on offense. While the Wolverines needed the change to boost their scoring efficiency, Walton may have needed it more to prove a point.
Since Illinois center Maverick Morgan made his “white collar” remarks toward Michigan following the Champaign blowout, Walton has been on a mission to prove how wrong Morgan was.
"As a point guard, I think that’s a reflection on me,” Walton said on Thursday. “If you call a team white collar, I think the point guard heads the identity of that team. As a person who’s never ever been questioned for toughness, it made me do a little self-evaluation.”
That mentality, paired with his style of leading by example, has changed the way Walton and the Wolverines have attacked opponents for the better.
But defensively, Walton has still shown that there’s room for improvement over the five-game stretch.
The senior struggled to contain his defensive assignment in Spartan freshman Cassius Winston, and didn’t seem to have the mental or physical edge that he showed in prior wins.
Walton did have to spend extra energy on the offensive end with senior wing Zak Irvin battling the flu. Still, it seemed the rest of the team was affected when he wasn’t at his best.
“I know this team looks at me as a leader,” Walton said on Sunday. “When I play and I show the face that it’s time to win, I think they follow suit. It’s a two-way street. They give me courage and I try to exude it by playing hard to start.”
If anything’s been proven for Michigan over the past five games, it’s that this team will only perform up to the level of its senior point guard. Walton has carried the Wolverines in their biggest wins of the season, and made costly mistakes at their lowest moments.