Since their enrollment in the fall of 2013, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. have been two of the Big Ten’s most popular and recognizable players.
They went to the NCAA Tournament in three out of their four years in Ann Arbor, and were mainstays in Michigan’s lineups, despite their ups and downs.
Mark Donnal arrived at Michigan at the same time as Walton and Irvin, but redshirted his first year because of the Wolverines’ then crowded frontcourt. The idea of giving him some run when Mitch McGary opted for season-ending back surgery early in the 2013-14 season was floated, but the UM brass decided to give him a year to develop before assuming what they figured would be a prominent role for the team in the upcoming seasons.
The trio of Wolverines never consistently played to the caliber they showed they were capable of—they never made a Final Four and they never really built off the 2013-14 campaign like many thought they could. Still, the legacy that these three players will leave at Michigan and in the Big Ten is undeniable.
Yes, for Michigan hoops, this is the end of an era.
During his career at Michigan, Mark Donnal often drew the ire of, well, everyone. He came in as a relatively highly-rated recruit, and was fully expected to be the Wolverines’ heir apparent to McGary and Jordan Morgan at the five spot.
Pretty soon into his first few starts in the fall of 2014, it became pretty clear that Donnal had some improving to do. He missed lots of easy layups which, to the incredible frustration of the Wolverine faithful, should have been easy dunks. As a player, he appeared shy and overwhelmed by the stage he was on, and was quickly surpassed on the depth chart by Ricky Doyle. Remember him?
Donnal found himself back in the starting lineup again to begin the following season, and had a lot to prove in order to keep that job. Other than knocking down a few more three-pointers than he did as a redshirt freshman, he did not do much to inspire any confidence in the coaching staff. By the end of that season, and for the remainder of his career in Ann Arbor, he was Moritz Wagner’s backup at the center position.
Now, he’s moving on to another program, yet to be announced. During his time with the Maize and Blue, anyone who saw him play could have seen anything from an obviously skilled big who also possessed some shooting range, to an inconsistent center prone to missing layups and avoiding all contact in the post. He provided quality depth for a while, but it’s safe to say that he was a disappointment at Michigan. Still, being tasked with replacing JMo and McGary is no easy proposition for anybody, and there’s something to be said for that.
He leaves behind a roster that will likely retain Wagner at the center position, and has young players like Jon Teske and Austin Davis waiting in the wings.
Where does one even begin?
Irvin was possibly the most polarizing Big Ten basketball player in recent memory. He sometimes flashed the kind of two-way ability that could have made him a lottery pick. At times, he’d single handedly keep his team in games. The 2015 game in Evanston comes to mind here. Other times, Zak was a puzzling player who seemed incapable of making even the easiest of shots. He will largely be remembered for his inconsistent play and streaky (to put it lightly) shooting.
Zak Irvin came in as a five star prospect with a reputation for great shooting, that patented sweepin’ layup and for being a solid defender for his position. The first of those three ideas was quickly corroborated as Zak knocked down 42% of his three-point shots as a super-sub in his freshman season. His first campaign was impressive, and he had everyone excited about his future. He was more than likely going to pressed into a starting role as a sophomore if Nik Stauskas were to declare for the 2014 NBA Draft—which, of course, happened.
Zak Irvin was a third of Michigan’s new and formidable big-three, along with Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. I vividly remember how optimistic everyone was about that; two more years of LeVert and three more years of Irvin and Walton only to be joined by incoming five star Kam Chatman. People legitimately thought that this would be a Final Four type roster—it probably should have been.
Instead, LeVert was never able to stay healthy over the next two seasons, Kam Chatman turned out to be a vastly overrated prospect and Derrick Walton couldn't do it all on his own, despite his best efforts.
Statistically, Zak played better as a senior than he did in his first two seasons as a starter. He became far more selective as a shooter, and had a much more effective shooting year as a result.
Though he never became the player many thought he would, he’ll still be remembered as a good leader and an important contributor to two deep tournament runs.
Michigan has plenty of guards and will have no shortage of options to replace him. First on that list, Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews.
-Derrick Walton Jr.:
With his superlative stretch performance fresh in everyone’s mind, Michigan says goodbye to their steady, do-it-all point guard, Derrick Walton Jr.
Walton became the Wolverines’ starting point guard the moment he stepped on to Michigan’s campus in 2013, taking over for some dude named Trey Burke. Immediately, he endeared himself to Big Ten fans with his all-around game and his maturity.
Over the course of the next four seasons, while he went through some slumps and had some injury issues, Walton was, at worst, a solid point guard, and at best, possibly the best player in the conference.
Walton’s departure, at least in my eyes, is more saddening than Burke’s. Everyone got used to Walton; he was reliable player and a vocal leader. Not to mention, he had the ability to absolutely take off and post some eye-popping, Trey-esque, numbers.
For that reason, among several others, Walton will always be remembered as one of the best players in program history, regardless of position.
Michigan has a capable replacement for Derrick in rising sophomore Xavier Simpson, and has three star point guard prospect Eli Brooks set to enroll in the fall. While they’ll have options, replacing a player of Walton’s caliber who had the kind of impact on the program that he did is quite simply an impossible proposition.