ANN ARBOR – John Beilein sees Jordan Morgan in Derrick Walton Jr. The Michigan basketball coach sees a lot of his former senior players in Walton. He sees players who have always had talent from one degree to another but who finally were realizing the payoff from the hours spent on the court honing their skill sets.
Very few players have honed their skills to produce the kind of play Walton has produced the past month, especially the past five games. It’s the kind of play that can carry the Wolverines off the NCAA Tournament bubble and into a long postseason run.
Walton is averaging 23 points over the last five games heading into Thursday night’s home game against No. 11-ranked and Big Ten-leader Wisconsin. He’s topped 20 points each of the last five games. Nik Stauskas had a five-game stretch of 20-point games in 2014. Louis Bullock did it seven straight times in the 1997-98 season, the last to have as many as five games in a row with 20 points or more.
No one else is getting mentioned in this club.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve had this type of ability,” Walton said Wednesday at the Crisler Center. “It’s all about the confidence. I’m really at ease with myself. I’m very comfortable in my skin and what I’m able to do. I just go out there and play at this point.”
Walton was named co-player of the week in the Big Ten following a 20-point game against Michigan State and a 25-point performance at Indiana, both desperately needed wins for Michigan (16-9, 6-6 Big Ten). He now has nine 20-point games in his career. Walton had scored that many points in a game just three times in his first three seasons.
“I think Derrick just took that upon himself to start being aggressive like he is,” junior forward D.J. Wilson said. “Coach has kind of always emphasized that he needs to shoot the ball more. He’s a great shooter and he can get his shot off at any time. I think it started to click with him about eight games back when he started going on that tear.”
Walton, Jalen Rose and Gary Grant are the only players in Michigan history to score at least 1,000 points, grab at least 400 rebounds and have at least 400 assists in their careers. Walton will be in his own group when he gets two more rebounds to reach 500 for his career.
The NCAA Tournament can turn on the play of a hot player. Steph Curry’s shooting took Davidson to within one game of the Final Four in 2008. UConn won a national title in 2011 behind Kemba Walker and then again in 2014 with Shabazz Napier leading the way.
Michigan, obviously, has to get to the tournament first but Beilein’s comparison for Walton is closer to home.
“I’ve had many seniors, Jordan Morgan being one of them, who in their senior year all a sudden it all starts to come together,” Beilein said. “It’s different times that different people get it, or it just comes to them. It’s not like they’ve been fighting it, it’s just that it comes to them because of a lot of repetitions. I don’t know when you learned your multiplication tables or how many times you had to do it compared to your classmate next to you, but when you get it, you’re not going to forget it. That timetable is important.
“Derrick has sort of pieced those things all together now.”
Walton averaged 7.9 points per game as a freshman, with a 19-point performance in a win at Michigan State highlighting 12 double-figure games for him. That was Morgan’s senior season, when the Wolverines reached the Midwest Regional final.
Walton’s sophomore season was wrecked by a foot injury suffered in the first month of the schedule. Walton had 23 double-figure games last season as a junior when he averaged 11.6 points and Michigan returned to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence.
Walton leads the team in scoring (14.7) and assists (3.8), and is second on the team in rebounds (4.7).
There are six regular-season games left for Michigan, beginning Thursday against Wisconsin, and then the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, D.C. The Wolverines can keep playing deeper into March the way Walton is performing.
“I look at things as a lot different than an end,” Walton said. “I don’t think of it like that. To me, March and February are the most enjoyable months of the season. You’re not doing too much practice. There’s games everywhere. You’re just playing. This is the fun part for me.”