Replacing the National Player of the Year when you’re a freshman is not easy. And that’s exactly what Derrick Walton Jr. had to do for Michigan this season.
“As soon as Trey decided to leave, he knew he had to take on possibly the starting role for this basketball team,” sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III said. “And during the summer until now he’s really progressing.”
Trey Burke, who played his freshman and sophomore seasons at Michigan before heading to the NBA, had just averaged 18.6 points and 6.7 assists during a sensational season. He led Michigan to the championship game in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, where the Wolverines lost a tight game to No. 1 seed Louisville.
“Coming in, I felt a little pressure, because he did a great job at his position,” Walton said. “But over the course of the season my teammates did a great job of letting me know that they’re with me every step of the way.”
While Walton’s production is still well shy of Burke’s spectacular numbers, Walton has matured into a leader on this young team that is on the doorstep of its second consecutive Final Four.
“Well, at the point guard position it’s important for him to naturally be a leader for us on the court,” senior forward Jordan Morgan said. “And we’ve seen a lot of growth in just his ability to step up and take control of the huddles and call plays when we need him to do that, and just being more of a voice. I’m sure it’s hard coming in on a team that returns a lot of players to really step up and give direction, but he’s come a long way as far as just having the confidence to do that.”
For the first time, Walton started calling plays on his own during Michigan’s Sweet 16 game against Tennessee. And it worked; the Wolverines defeated the Volunteers, 73-71.
“Most of the time what he’s calling is right and it’s working,” Robinson said. “So he’s done a great job of leading this team and he’s the reason why we got here so far.”
Michigan is a young team in terms of age. Head coach John Beilein starts one freshman, three sophomores and one senior.
But the Wolverines are actually an experienced bunch. Three starters from last year’s national runner-up are on the roster, along with three key reserves. Walton and freshman shooting guard Zak Irvin are the only newbies in the rotation.
“This was never the plan to have in year seven,” Beilein said, who began his tenure at Michigan in 2007. “We thought we’d have a bunch of cagey veterans out here getting it done with so many ways, the way some of the teams that have been very successful in the past.”
Even without the cagey veterans and with a freshman point guard running the show, this group plays like it has been together for four years. They constantly talk about how their chemistry has helped them be successful all season long.
“We are really connected off the court,” Robinson said. “If you were to walk into the hotel lobby, we are all just sitting there chilling or in the hot tub always together. One thing about this group is that we can talk to each other like brothers. We can say things or get on each other and no one will doubt themselves or get mad at each other.”
That chemistry and brotherhood should not be taken for granted.
Bringing a freshman into a starting lineup, especially as the point guard, can be dicey. Upperclassmen can get jealous of a rookie getting the opportunity to run the show without paying his dues. But the Wolverines have been mature and team-oriented, setting those potential issues aside.
Beilein credits his team’s ability to accept Walton as the starting point guard with how Walton handled himself on and off the court when he came to campus.
“It’s only difficult if you are not mature off the court,” Beilein said. “[Walton’s] brand started the first day on campus, how he took care of his business, how he approached study hall, how he went to class, how he responded to coaches critiquing him. Now when he’s calling signals, we’re trusting him with the ball. He’s put so many deposits into that bank of trust that allows him — they trust him with leadership. But he’s established that by methodically going about his business in the right way since the day he entered Michigan.”