Derrick Walton's last ride
On Nov. 8, 2013, Michigan hung a banner from the rafters.
It was Walton’s college debut, and he took his spot in line alongside his 14 teammates during the national anthem. For the majority of them, the banner signified fulfillment, a lasting commemoration of the Wolverines run to the NCAA Tournament championship the season prior.
For Walton, it was a symbol of what he expected his future to hold.
“Walking into it, there was just so much going on, and it was so fun and the excitement was just through the roof,” Walton said at Big Ten Media Day. “I remember saying to myself, like, ‘This is definitely what it’s all about and how it is.’ ”
But with the banner also came expectations. From the outside looking in, Walton was meant to carry the torch Trey Burke had left for him. Both were point guards. Both were 6-foot-1. Both could handle the ball and shoot. It was an easy comparison.
Those on the outside were dead wrong. His coaches didn’t want him to emulate the former Naismith Award winner. His teammates didn’t either. And Walton just wanted to play his own game, too.
“Derrick knew he wasn’t Trey Burke,” said his father, Derrick Walton Sr. “Everybody said their game was similar, but Derrick is actually a true point guard. He just wanted to be Derrick Walton, he didn’t want to be Trey Burke.”
Added 2013 center Jordan Morgan: “Early on, we made it known that we didn’t expect him to be Trey Burke. We didn’t necessarily expect him to lead us back to where we were the year before. He would be a piece of it, but we had a lot of experience in place already from that run. And we just wanted him to come in and be Derrick Walton.”
His freshman year, he got the chance to do just that. Walton just wanted to work. He expected to arrive in Ann Arbor having to compete for time with the man people tried to compare him to. But Burke went to the NBA, leaving Walton to take over the reins.
Immediately, he ran an offense that featured future NBA draft picks Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III. He didn’t need to carry the team. He just needed to facilitate.
While Burke starred from the point, Walton came in ready to defer the spotlight. In high school, he had been Michigan’s Gatorade Player of the Year, the runner-up for Mr. Basketball of Michigan (behind current Big 12 preseason player of the year Monte Morris) and a Parade All-American during his senior year.
As a freshman, Walton started every game at point guard except one, helping to lead the Wolverines to their first outright Big Ten Championship since 1986. The Wolverines rolled on to the Elite Eight, and save for a 3-pointer by Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison with 2.3 seconds left to play, Walton would have been starting at point guard as a true freshman in the Final Four, too.
In that moment, Walton got to taste what all the hype was about.
Yet as soon as he tasted it, it was gone.
Entering his sophomore year, Michigan dealt with the departures of Morgan, Robinson III, McGary, Stauskas and Jon Horford. Still, the Wolverines seemed to have enough pieces in place to contend.
Quickly, though, those pieces started to crumble.
In the fifth game of the season, Michigan took the floor against then-No. 14 Villanova. By the end of the first half, Walton had picked up a toe injury that would eventually end his season — even if he didn’t know it yet.
He played through the pain, laboring over 14 games after the matchup with the Wildcats. Two days after losing Caris LeVert for the season to a fractured foot, Walton put forth a 40-minute, 17-point effort in a 69-64 loss to then-No. 6 Wisconsin on Jan. 24. He hit the 3-pointer that sent the game into overtime. But it turned out to be the final game of his sophomore season, as his year ended with a foot injury after the matchup with the Badgers.
“I could tell that really hurt him, having to sit on the sidelines and watch, especially as we were really struggling my junior year,” said former Michigan guard Spike Albrecht. “He had been on a team a year before who won a Big Ten championship and went to the Elite Eight.
“I think him sitting on the sidelines and wishing he could be out there, knowing that he could help, but he couldn’t play due to his injury, I could tell that really bothered him. You could see it every day in practice, how bad he just wanted to be out there.”
Faced with watching from the sidelines as the Wolverines missed the Big Dance for the first time in five years, Walton found comfort in his faith.
“I think it gave me a great deal of humility,” Walton said. “It made me tap into my own personal faith and take things for what it’s worth. These last two seasons definitely opened my eyes to broader things than just basketball.
“…I was on the track to do some things that I thought I could do and you know, the injury happened. As a person that believes in a higher power, I just think there are things that happen for a reason.”
He would get the chance at another fresh start. But adversity reared its ugly head once more.
After making a full recovery, the new season beckoned with the same — if not heightened — promise of a returning to the NCAA Tournament.
Zak Irvin began the year with a back surgery in September, and was never quite himself despite returning in time for the season. LeVert’s 464 minutes were an overestimate of the impact he could have on the program. Albrecht completed the trifecta — announcing on Dec. 11 that he would end his Michigan career to focus on recovering from bilateral hip surgery he underwent in the offseason.
Suddenly Michigan was without its two marquee seniors, the last remnants of a class that was dubbed the “Fresh Five.”
It was that same class that had set the bar Walton’s career has been measured by. Now its last traces were ending prematurely, and Walton was the one left to fill the leadership void.
He always wanted to lead by example. He hadn’t been as willing to be vocal. But now, he had no choice.
“I just always said, ‘Yeah Derrick, well, your roommates are down. You have to step up a little, bro,” Walton Sr. said. “ ‘…You’re just going to have to be the leader right now. They’re hurt and you just got to do what you’re supposed to do. You have the ball in your hand 90 percent of the time, but you have to go ahead and open your mouth a little bit.’ ”
There were moments when Walton wondered how the team could be so hampered by injury, how it could be so unlucky. It had never crossed his mind that the injuries would pile up.
“Like I said, (it) just gives you a different type of perspective on life,” Walton said. “Just makes you appreciate and try and get the most out of every day. That’s pretty much where I’m at right now.
“I just try to attack each and every opportunity I’m given, and at the end of the day, I think the chips will fall where the may, and at the end of the day, I’m going to be where I need to be.”
Now, Walton has a team equipped to make another run in the postseason. He, Irvin and a host of others make up a group without one true star, but with all the necessary ability to succeed.
Maybe more importantly, Walton has one last season to stamp his legacy on this program. And a large part of that will reveal itself in the standard he sets for younger players. One of those players is a freshman point guard named Xavier Simpson. He starred in high school, and now, he’ll be asked to step in and make an immediate impact on the Wolverines.
Perhaps that sounds familiar.