Unlike D.J. Wilson, his former teammate on the Michigan men’s basketball team, Derrick Walton Jr. wasn’t projected to be drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft — or even in the second round, for that matter.
Despite a collegiate career steeped in accomplishments — Walton left Ann Arbor third in program history in games started, fourth all-time in assists, tied for fourth in three-pointers made and is the only Wolverine to score 1,000 points, grab 500 rebounds and dish out 400 assists for his career — NBA teams shied away from him, due to his perceived lack of explosiveness and short stature, at only six feet tall.
But this by no means signaled the end of Walton’s NBA hopes. In recent years, similarly accomplished but undersized college point guards such as Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and Penn State’s Tim Frazier have played their way onto NBA rosters and become key rotation pieces despite going undrafted.
Shortly after the draft, Walton accepted an invitation from the Orlando Magic to join their team at the Orlando Summer League. And if Walton’s performance in the summer league play has been any indication, he appears to have a legitimate chance to follow in the footsteps of Ferrell and Frazier.
Over the course of the Orlando Summer League, which began July 1 and ends July 6, Walton has averaged 10 points and 3.5 assists in 20.8 minutes per game, while shooting 50 percent from behind the arc and 46.8 percent overall. With a 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio, he has led the Magic to a plus-21 rating when he’s on the court, showing the same efficiency he displayed at Michigan.
“We don’t get across the finish line without him,” said Orlando summer league coach Chad Forcier in reference to Sunday’s game against the Miami Heat, in which Walton hit five of seven shots, including two 3-pointers, to help the Magic to an 81-68 win. “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. 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.”
Much of Forcier’s statement will likely sound familiar to Wolverines fans. Michigan’s offense ranked fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency last season at 122.3 points per 100 possessions, and it was Walton’s steady hand that was responsible for much of this success. He was a true floor general — a collected, intelligent presence with the ball in his hands who had a knack for big shots in key moments.
“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 told Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press Sunday. “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.”
The skills that Walton has shown so far in Summer League action — basketball IQ and shooting ability — are the skills most likely to translate to that highest level. Dynamic athletes and high scorers such as Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kyrie Irving have increasingly taken control of the NBA in recent years. And with this, finding players able to operate an offense at a high level when the starters rest is crucial.
And even though he may be lacking a few inches compared to most of his competition, Walton appears to fit that job description quite nicely.
“A guy of my size and stature is kind of a risk for most teams,” Walton said. “I’m firm in my abilities and being able to show it is a relief. It’s easy for me because I go out and do what I do and the doubters I don’t pay any mind.”
Sunday’s game might have had some extra significance for Walton, as Zak Irvin suited up on the other sideline for the Heat, scoring five points on two-of-four shooting.
But despite having played alongside Irvin for four years, there was nothing unusual to Walton about playing against his former teammate for a change — to Walton, it felt “like practice.”
“We compete all the time in our spare time, one-on-ones and things like that, but that’s my brother,” Walton said. “It was fun to see him out there.”
Added Irvin: “It was good to see him. It was definitely weird going up against him, us playing four years. He did give it to me a little bit. They did beat us. Hopefully, I get a chance to see him down the road to get the chance to even things up.”
Like Walton, Irvin was not among the 60 players selected in the NBA Draft, and accepted a Summer League invitation shortly after.
Irvin, however, hasn’t had the same level of success in Orlando as Walton. The Heat are 0-4 in Summer League action, and Irvin has struggled to find his shot — he’s made just one of his 13 three-point attempts so far and is averaging just 4.8 points per game.
But Irvin, who is tied for first all-time in games played for Michigan and third in three-pointers made, will have more chances, as the Heat will begin play at the Las Vegas Summer League July 8. For now, Irvin just hopes to gain experience as he adjusts to professional basketball.
“I’m enjoying the experience,” Irvin told the Free Press. “I’m trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I can out there and just getting better each game.”