Walton emerges as offensive threat in win over Penn State

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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 14, 2014

When Penn State coach Patrick Chambers compiled his list of keys to beating Michigan on Tuesday night, it’s safe to say freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. wasn’t at the top of his list.

On a team stocked full of talent, highlighted by sophomores Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, Walton simply isn’t one of the Wolverines’s go-to threats to score. But Walton wasted little time making Chambers regret not keying in on the freshman, as Michigan knocked off the Nittany Lions, 80-67, thanks to 16 points from the point guard.

“Now he’s on our —” Chambers said, pausing, not ready to admit that he completely overlooked Walton. “Not that he wasn’t on our radar, but he really stepped up today.”

Right out of the gate, Walton made his presence felt. Capitalizing on the attention Penn State paid to Stauskas and Robinson, Walton drilled a wide-open 3-pointer from the corner just 13 seconds into the game. It was a sign of things to come, as Walton was repeatedly left open on the perimeter, specifically in the corner opposite Stauskas, giving him room to operate a steady inside-out game.

Eleven seconds after his first make, Walton was the beneficiary of a steal by sophomore guard Caris LeVert for an easy fast-break layup. Less than two minutes later, the freshman hit another 3-pointer from the same corner, extending Michigan’s lead to 8-0.

“It really propelled us,” Robinson said. “He’s been working hard and I’m just glad to see him hit eight straight points, especially to make the defense respect him. Sometimes they don’t respect him, think he’s a pass-first (point guard).

“I think he has gained a lot more confidence.”

Minutes later, with the shot clock winding down and the ball in his hands beyond the arc, Walton penetrated and drew a foul. He knocked down both free throws to give him 10 of the Wolverines’ first 14 points.

It was the first of three buckets Walton scored in the final moments of the shot clock — a significant boost to the offense that’s still searching for a secondary option to Stauskas who can create his own shot, especially with the shot clock winding down.

“That’s critical for us,” Robinson said. “He did a great job at finding his own shot tonight.”

By halftime, Walton’s 12 first-half points nearly matched his career-high 14 points for an entire game.

Walton was held scoreless for the first 13 minutes of the second half as Robinson and Stauskas took control of the offense, but the point guard did hit two big baskets to give him a career-high 16 points. His efficient night ended with a six-for-nine mark from the field. He was credited for just three assists, though that figure is misleading, as his ability to constantly penetrate the lane thanks to what Michigan coach John Beilein called “jet-quick” dribble-drive moves created a lot of space for the Wolverines’s shooters.

“There’s a lot going on inside that freshman’s brain and he’s trying to pick his spots,” Beilein said. “It’s slow steps forward he’s making as far as running our offense and understanding all the stuff that we do. It can be confusing at times … but I can see it slowing down and see him getting better at it.”

Tuesday night was Walton’s third consecutive game scoring in double figures. And as he continues to appear on opposing coaches’ radars, as Chambers said he will, it will only continue to make Michigan’s offense more potent as it diversifies beyond just Stauskas and Robinson.

“It’s tough to dial up more than two guys,” Beilein said, before going on to say that “I think we have to continue to look for opportunities for him.”