The 6-foot-0 junior hasn’t been right for quite some time, still dealing with lingering issues brought on by a toe injury, but Walton Jr. appeared fresh, jolting into the sky to grab some early defensive rebounds.
Walton Jr. played 35 minutes for the Wolverines (10-6, 3-1) Saturday, finishing with 15-points, his highest total since scoring 16 in Michigan’s upset home loss at the hands of NJIT back on Dec. 6.
“My teammates gave me the energy so no matter what’s going on with me I wanted to do it for my teammates,” Walton Jr. said.
“The guys came up to me and said they needed some big plays out of me and I always want to look out for my teammates so I was able to make some plays for them.”
While Walton Jr.’s springs off the floor certainly impressed, able to add five-rebounds to the box score Saturday, his outside shooting was as consistent as perhaps it has been all season, knocking down 3-of-4 attempts from three-point land.
“Just starting to get my rhythm back,” Walton Jr. said. “Just been an uphill battle for me trying to get back to my normal self but like I said, the trainer is doing a great job having me able to play everyday.
“I just credit it to that and I’m just going out there and having fun with my teammates.”
Whether it be his confidence or health, his coach John Beilein knows what Walton Jr. is dealing with this season, not even just injury related.
Walton Jr. was the point guard on a Big Ten regular season championship team a season ago, playing alongside the 2013-14 Big Ten Player of the Year and future first round NBA draft pick.
This year, Walton Jr.’s role and responsibility has changed a considerable amount, offering an adjustment period that goes along with the move from freshman to sophomore.
“I think he put it all in one (today),” Beilein said. “If you look at last year, he’s playing out there and he’s trying to feel his way 25 minutes a game, and he’s got Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson and Jordan Morgan around him, a wealth of experience pushing him to spots.
“Now all of a sudden you have him out there and he looks around and it’s like he’s one of the veterans. That can get to you a little bit and you’re going to get a lot more attention than you used to have.
“That’s part of it but there’s no question and the injury thing keeps coming up, I don’t want to say he wasn’t playing very well, I’m just saying if you ever stub your toe and try and play it’s not easy.”
Walton Jr. only managed three assists Saturday afternoon but his last one was clearly the most impactful.
Coming out of a timeout with 38 seconds remaining in regulation, Michigan up just two at 57-55, Walton Jr. was entrusted with making the right play, finding freshman center Ricky Doyle for an emphatic alley oop that sealed the victory for the Wolverines.
“We were drawing up Caris with a lot of things down the stretch and we figured with all the assistance and help, Derrick needed to have the ball on the last play,” Beilein said. “So he’s got four things he can do. Probably he has not, he’s hit them over the top for a lay-in, he’s never thrown it in for a lob like that and we’re still growing in that area cause you have to do that today.
“Those two had synced on it and it was a really big play in the game. But we wanted Derrick; Derrick was playing like we remember Derrick playing. He’s not 100-percent healthy but he was healthier today in the game than he’s been in a long time.”