By John Denton
July 5, 2017
ORLANDO – Basketball talent evaluators sometimes see just the body and overlook the body of work, leading to mistakes along the way.
How else to explain undersized point guard Isaiah Thomas falling to the 60th pick of the 2011 NBA Draft and ultimately becoming an all-star? Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green being relegated to second-round draft status five years ago? Or Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon making history this past NBA season as the lowest-drafted Rookie of the Year ever?
Derrick Walton Jr., all 6-feet, 1-inch of him (in basketball shoes, that is), is hoping to overcome size issues of his own and pull off a similar feat to that of Thomas, Green and Brogdon. Even though he was one of the most decorated players in the history of the University of Michigan basketball program, Walton Jr. wasn’t picked on draft night two weeks ago. Even though there are legitimate concerns about his lack of size, he feels he has the kind of toughness, basketball IQ and talent to come from nowhere and make it big in the NBA.
“Growing up, my dad always taught me to play bigger than my size,’’ said Walton Jr., who came up big last season for Michigan when he was named the MVP of the Big 10 tournament. “I think in this timeframe in the NBA, smaller guards are excelling. Guys like Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul – I think I can do some similar things to them. At the end of the day, when you can play you can play and it doesn’t matter how tall you are.’’
Not being especially tall hasn’t hindered Walton Jr. during this week’s Mountain Dew Orlando Pro Summer League as he has been one of the most impressive players for the Magic (2-2). In four games (one start), Walton Jr. has averaged 10 points, 3.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds while making 46.9 percent of his shots and 50 percent of his threes (six of 12).
Walton’s play and his control of the point guard position has caught the eye Magic assistant coach Chad Forcier, who has alternated Kalin Lucas and Walton Jr. as his team’s point guards this week. Forcier likes that Walton Jr. spent four seasons playing at Michigan and the poise gained from that experience has been apparent all week.
“He’s an impressive point guard and I’m a huge fan of his,’’ said Forcier, Orlando’s summer league head coach. “We don’t get across the finish line (on Sunday) without him. There was a stretch there where (Miami) cut into our lead and it was starting to get tight and he came up with some big baskets. Overall, he just ended up controlling the tempo and giving our team a sense of calm in addition to hitting a couple of timely shots. He’s been tremendous and he’s got a fan in me.’’
On Wednesday, Walton Jr. was solid again in Orlando’s 84-73 defeat of New York, chipping in nine points, four assists, two threes and two rebounds in 20 minutes. For long stretches, Forcier used Walton Jr. and Lucas – products of Michigan and Michigan State respectively – simultaneously in the backcourt. That pairing has led to quite a bit of trash talk from the two Detroit natives who attended rival colleges.
“I made it well known that my last time playing against Michigan State we won by a significant margin, so I made sure that (Lucas) heard about that,’’ Walton Jr. said. “But (Lucas) is a Detroit guy and at the end of the day it’s always good to be able to relate to someone with similar size and background and overall it was a great experience.’’
Whatever concerns there were about Walton Jr.’s size coming out of high school, they didn’t slow his production at Michigan. As a senior, he ranked eighth in Big Ten in scoring (15.5 ppg.) and fourth in assists (4.5). He’s the only player in Michigan history to record at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists in a career. And his name is littered all over the school record books as he’s fourth all-time in assists (449), fourth in threes (233) and second in free throw percentage (83.7).
Still, that decorated resume wasn’t enough to get him selected on draft night – something that was both shocking and hurtful to him. But he was comforted in getting a quick invite to join the Magic’s summer league squad.
“Things happen, you know, and my name didn’t get called. You control what you can control and that was out of my hands. It hurt, of course, but it really doesn’t matter now,’’ Walton Jr. said. “Each and every game in this league is a trial and you’ve got to prove yourself every night. That’s always been my M.O. – wanting to prove myself. I did some good things in college, but the past is the past and the NBA is an entirely new game.’’
If Walton Jr. is to make a NBA roster, it will likely be as a third point guard initially. In that role, he’ll have to prove to talent evaluators and coaches that he can defend, run a team and knock down open shots when called upon. Despite having questionable shot selection judgement at times, he’s done those things this week in the summer league. His performance has allowed him to dispel some of the questions about his lack of size.
Walton Jr. feels that if given a chance in time he can be a small guard doing big things for the Magic.
“I haven’t ever been the tallest guy, so I’ve always had to work on being good with the ball, making the right play and making decisions on the fly,’’ said Walton Jr., who noted that he might join another NBA team’s summer league squad in Las Vegas in the coming days if he doesn’t secure a camp invite from the Magic. “At this level, guys know who can play and playing the right way is how you win. I’ve always been about winning. Winning basketball stands out and going out and scoring points has never really been on my mind. It’s just about making the right play and the rest will take care of itself.’’
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