If you’ve never watched Derrick Walton Jr. play, imagine a conductor so comfortable with his orchestra that everything appears to be second nature. Walton is in complete control of not only the other four players on his team, but also fully aware where the five players on the other team are. To understand Walton though, you have to start from the beginning.
Walton’s initial plan at Michigan was to sit behind Trey Burke and learn from the National Player of the Year. Burke bolted for the NBA, Walton took the keys and became Michigan’s starter from the minute he stepped on campus. His first year he helped lead Michigan to one game from a second consecutive Final Four while averaging just under 8 points per game.
The last three seasons have been seen an uptick of his points in every consecutive campaign, with a slight increase in minutes as well. As his senior year has gone on, Walton has found a new level of offensive prowess. His step-back three pointers have become a staple of Michigan’s late shot-clock offense. His vision and passing ability allow teammates to get great looks, including a recent monster 16 assist game in a blowout at Nebraska. Walton knows the end is near, and is trying to take advantage of every opportunity.
Across from Michigan’s senior is Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans, who has quietly emerged as one of the best scorers in college basketball on the country’s most prolific offense. I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched much of Oklahoma State this year. Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia and Iowa State are the class of that conference, and the Cowboys skidded down the stretch, losing their last three games.
Watch a bit of Evans, though, and just begin to understand just how prolific a player the sophomore is. While Walton plays much more methodically, a product of Michigan’s slower pace, Evans goes about 120 miles an hour on every possession. On consecutive possessions after made baskets, Evans pushes the ball and gets his teammates an open shot within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock. Again, this is not a fast break, but rather just Evans trying to quickly catch the defense off guard.
Like Walton, however, Evans knows exactly where are of his teammates are on the floor, and exactly where their sweet spots are. He’ll set up shooters in the corners, big men off the pick-and-roll for dunks, and Oklahoma State will run double picks from the elbow or wing to get Evans an opportunity to attack the basket.
If I’m the Michigan coaching staff, I pick one guy on defense whose sole job it is to deny Evans the ball. Wisconsin successfully implemented this strategy with Zak Showalter against Northwestern without letting Bryant McIntosh get any meaningful touches, but Showy was unable to stop Derrick Walton as the senior roasted Wisconsin for 29 points. Don’t be surprised if Xavier Simpson gets extended minutes chasing Evans around the perimeter, as Michigan can afford to use his aggressiveness and extra fouls.
Ultimately, Walton and Evans represent two college basketball point guards that are both peaking at the right time. Evans is completely comfortable knocking down the outside shot, driving to the basket and setting up teammates. Walton has become prolific from behind the arc, and has become more comfortable with teammates like Zak Irvin and D.J. Wilson taking over the game for stretches.
If Michigan wants to hold this monster Oklahoma State team, it starts with Evans. Changing defensive schemes, doubling the corner and providing pressure on the Cowboy guard will totally throw off Oklahoma State. Iowa State and Kansas had enough firepower to hold off the Cowboys in recent games, but Michigan’s defense could be the difference between advancing to the second round or not.