ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Michigan athletic trainer Alex Wong and rapid heart beats deserve almost as much credit for Derrick Walton’s performance on Tuesday night as Derrick Walton deserves for his performance on Tuesday night.
Because of a perfectly and tightly wrapped ankle, and a little extra drive, Walton restarted the season on a high note, scoring 16 points during the Wolverines’ 77-62 win over the Northern Kentucky Norse at the Crisler Center.
Despite a few hobbles here and there, Walton was quick, in control and sharp throughout the evening.
“I know adrenaline will help me a lot. The blood flowing really helped me a lot. Our trainer did a really good job of taping me…” said Walton, who was again sidelined with ankle problems in the beginning of December.
Because of the nagging issue, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior had been forced to sit out the past three games.
However, entering Tuesday, Walton “had no thoughts of lingering pain.” He just wanted to play basketball.
“I’m going to be honest with you. I was really, really tired–because that was the first time I got back out there and played without stoppages and stuff like that,” Walton replied when asked to contrast the way he felt from start to finish. “But the second half, I kind of eased my way back into it, started to get my wind, catch a second wind…”
That “second wind” was nearly immediate. Walton, who shot 5-for-10 from the field and 2-for-5 from long distance, scored 10 of his 16 points during the final 20 minutes of the game. Walton’s quick flurry was especially pleasing for coach John Beilein, whose 8-2 team continues to search for answers following an injury to sophomore forward D.J. Wilson and the loss of senior guard Spike Albrecht, who retired this past week.
So yes, the more Walton, the better. He’s instantly become even more invaluable.
“Yesterday, he couldn’t make a shot in practice, so I loved seeing his first three go in in that second half,” Beilein said of Walton. “I thought he looked good. He still had trouble pushing off that bad ankle a little bit, but he looked good out there.
“He really helps us with defense and rebounding. All of the other things (passing, scoring) are a given for a point guard, but the defensive rebounding is really important.”
Walton still has room to improve, as he missed a “big portion of his development” when he was sidelined by an ankle/toe injury this past January. Having to adopt the role of spectator during the summer months didn’t help his cause, either.
But that didn’t sour Walton.
“He’s got a really good attitude, and I think he really appreciates, right now, what it’s like to play at Michigan,” Beilein said. “The days are counting down, right? Now he’s in Game 10 of his junior year and you know, ‘How many games do I have left over the next two years?'”
Beilein said that Walton’s GPS is working better these days. With improved angle coverage, the defensive-minded point man knows how to better position himself in the line of fire.
One degree the wrong way means points scored.
That used to be a problem, but it shouldn’t be this season.
“He’s getting to understand those parts of the game,” Beilein said. “It’s not just playing hard, which he’s generally done, it’s playing smart at the same time. You can play hard and give the wrong angle and give up layups.”
Without Albrecht, there’s a heightened sense of urgency floating around the locker room. It’s not panic, but there is concern. More players need to do more. That’s the bottom line, especially since Michigan has already gone through the wringer with piles of injuries during the past year.
Walton knows that better than anyone, and he’s aiming to “step up vocally” in order to do his part. He’s willing to be the “head of the snake” and sacrifice his body much in the same way Albrecht had done for the past three years–with pure energy and heart.
“When guys see me playing with a lot of intensity and making some hustle plays… you know, they kind of follow suit,” Walton said. “It starts with the point guard, and I’m just going to try to set the best example that I can.”
Extra-effort plays go a long way–a really long way. They won’t be carbon copies of Albrecht’s hustle, but they’ll help.
“In some ways you can’t (replace Albrecht’s energy),” said Walton, who referred to his former teammate as an older brother. “You just try to cover for it in different ways, by just being a little more gritty and knowing that waiting around and seeing if somebody else is going to make the play is really not the remedy to go to…”