Next season is set to be the year of the freshman. You have Kentucky’s historic class and Andrew Wiggins historic hype and Jabari Parker expected to be a star at Duke. All of those guys have a lot of pressure to be great right away.
In the next tier of freshmen, the man with the most pressure could be Michigan point guard Derrick Walton.
The last three years, Michigan has been identified by its point guards. First it was Darius Morris as a sophomore, and then it was Trey Burke the last two years.
John Beilein’s strategy oftentimes was simply this:
Give the ball to my point guard, maybe set a ball screen and let him go to work.
Beilein’s two-guard offense is much more complex than that, but it didn’t always have to be. He often simplified it—setting more ball screens, for instance—to take advantage of the abilities of Morris and Burke.
Beilein is smart enough to know that it would not be wise to put too much pressure on Walton, and the coach has even said that Spike Albrecht has a chance to be the starter next season (per MLive.com); however, no one who has watched Walton really believes that.
“I know Albrecht had that great game in the first half of the national championship, but Walton is simply a better and more talented player,” CBSSports.com recruiting analyst Jeff Borzello said over email this week. “Albrecht is a lot better than I expected, but Walton is really a guy who can change the game for the Wolverines. He can be closer to Burke than Albrecht can be.”
From a scouting perspective, Walton comes in more heralded than both Burke and Morris. He is ranked as the 37th-best incoming freshman by Rivals.com and 30th by ESPN.com. Rivals had Burke at 142 and Morris at 77, and ESPN.com had Burke at 84 and Morris at 100.
"It was exceptional that (Burke and Morris) were able to do this so quickly," Beilein told MLive.com. "Darius had an incredibly good sophomore year and had ups and downs as a freshman. Trey had a spectacular freshman year. Everybody's different.
"We can't say 'this freshman did this,' we have to see what he does and guide him along the best path we know."
That path—or role—that Beilein probably has in mind for Walton is as a facilitator. Walton has the luxury of being surrounded by more talent as a freshman than both Burke and Morris.
Beilein will be able to build an offense that funnels the ball to NBA prospects Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III. He can also tell Walton that all he needs from him when he gets to the paint is to look to pitch it out to Nik Stauskas, one of the best three-point weapons in the country.
From Borzello’s perspective, that should fit Walton’s game just fine. He writes:
The biggest thing is that Walton is a tough, competitive guard who loves to win. He's not always about scoring the most, but he has a great feel for the game and knows how to find open teammates. He controls tempo effectively, but is still good in the open floor. He's not a big guard, but he can get into the lane and finish. In terms of shooting, he can make both mid-range and 3-point shots, but needs to be more consistent.
If the workout video below is any indication, Walton is working a lot on his jumper, and at least against no defense, it looks pretty good.
What Beilein does well is adapt the strengths of his players to his offense. Morris struggled with his outside shot in his two seasons at Michigan, but he became effective as a sophomore at getting to the paint and either scoring himself or creating for others.
Burke was pretty good right away, and Beilein gave him a lot of responsibility. While Burke’s numbers were more consistent from the start than Morris', he too saw a gradual uptick from his freshman to sophomore year.
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With McGary, Robinson, Stauskas and incoming freshman wing Zak Irvin, Walton does not have to put up Burke-like numbers. But it’s also worth pointing out that the last time Beilein didn’t have a point guard playing a big role—Morris’ freshman year—the Wolverines went 15-17.
Beilein’s two-guard offense has succeeded without a great point guard before, but the last three years have proven it is best when he has a talented lead guard who can work wonders off ball screens.
According to Synergy Sports (via UMHoops.com), Burke was involved in 487 ball-screen possessions last season and generated 1.045 points per possession in those trips.
“They can still run ball-screens with Walton,” Borzello said. “He's a true point guard who runs an offense and initiates sets very well. Burke was unbelievable at working off of ball-screens, and Walton obviously won't be as effective. He needs to command more respect on his perimeter jumper, so defenders can't simply go under the screen. While Walton is tough and strong, he needs to add more weight so he can take bumps and contact better.”
The freshmen in Beilein’s system all adapt at different speeds. Look last year at how quickly Robinson fit in and how long it took for McGary to take off. It took Morris until his sophomore year to really get it.
Albrecht could buy some time for the Wolverines to wait around on Walton. But for Michigan to be really good again next year, Walton is going to have to get there at some point.